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The New Tragedy of the Commons

The New Tragedy of the Commons

0 Comments 🕔14.Feb 2014

This article is part of our Enough! feature on Europe’s exploding social movements.

by Florian Bieber

From Maribor to Istanbul, protests and social movements have shaken the political systems of Southeastern Europe in recent years. These heterogeneous movements represent part of a larger wave of social movements that have been characteristic of the Mediterranean region. While protests have taken place globally, from Occupy Wall Street to Maidan Square in the Ukraine, the center of protests has been the Mediterranean region, from the ‘Arab Spring’ to dissatisfied citizens in the democracies of the northern Mediterranean. By looking at the larger regional context, one can identify similarities that transcend one particular regime type. Furthermore, the protests use frames from other social movements and are in communication with one another.

Protests in Southeastern Europe constitute a sub-section of this larger group, sharing (formally) democratic political systems and being particularly affected by the economic crisis and its aftermath. They also share the fact of being held in the European periphery, where the sense of powerlessness is compounded by an unresponsive elite and a (perceived) lack of agency over larger socio-economic processes. The process of Europeanization, i.e. the adoption of norms and roles of the European Union (EU) and the policy prescription of the core EU, has been a driver of reform in recent decades. Yet at the same time, this process has been presented by local elites as being without alternatives, and thus served as useful guise to pursue self-serving interests. As a consequence, the protests have sought to reclaim agency and choice.

The social movements have tackled a range of issues and concerns including austerity, the privatization of public space, the (non-) provision and privatization of welfare and public utilities, poverty, corruption, bureaucratic inefficiency, environmental concerns, and authoritarian tendencies. Virtually every country in the region has witnessed mass protests. While anti-austerity movements in Greece, the mass opposition to the development of Gezi Park in Istanbul, and the subsequent attempts to violently contain protestors in Turkey have been the most prominent, no state has been left unaffected by new social movements.

Many protests have focused on particular tangible issues, such as public spaces, speeding fines or mining projects, but demonstrations have frequently served as conduits for broader social and political discontent, as rallying points for citizens to demand fundamental political and social transformation of their societies. Protests have contributed to the fall of government in Slovenia, the resignation of Bulgarian PM Boyko Borisov and the defeat of certain unpopular policies and practices such as the Romanian healthcare bill. Perhaps most significantly they are leading to the creation of dynamic political and social actors and the realignment of political space.

In 1968 Garrett Hardin wrote his influential essay, “The Tragedy of the Commons,” where he argued that common goods are easily depleted by individuals seeking to maximize their own short-term interests to the disadvantage of the common good. The modern answer for this collective action problem is the state, which can regulate the commons and prevent its depletion.

The protests that have shaken governments in Southeastern Europe draw our attention to a new tragedy of the commons: what if the state is unwilling or unable to protect the commons? The dilemma itself is by no means new, and the abuse of the commons for the benefit of a few has long been a feature of political systems around the world. However, this dynamic has not been so central to social movements as in recent years. The wave of protests in the 1970s and 1980s, culminating in 1989, were focused on authoritarian and totalitarian regimes, while the recent protests focused on both democracies and authoritarian systems – both sharing an elite perceived as depleting the common good for the interests of narrow interest groups.

The protest movements arose over the use of common goods for private, often commercial interest: the transformation of Gezi Park in Istanbul into a shopping center; a similar project for Picin Park triggered protests in Bosnia’s second-largest city, Banja Luka, as did another project in the Albanian capital of Tirana. In next-door Skopje, the capital of Macedonia, architectural students and citizens protested against the transformation of the city center by the government through the building project ‘Skopje 2014’. In Maribor, Slovenia, a park was not the focus of attention, but protests were triggered in November 2012 after Mayor Franc Kangler signed a partnership with a private company to establish a traffic safety system with the majority of profits remaining with the company, and thousands of citizens started receiving gratuitous fines. In Romania, the commons were the countryside. Here, the Roșia Montană mining project threatened to destroy the countryside through open-pit gold mining.

IEV, UKRAINE - January 20, 2014: The morning after the violent confrontation and anti-government protests on the Hrushevskoho Street. Photo taken on: January 20th, 2014. © Mykhaylo Palinchak |

KIEV, UKRAINE – January 20, 2014: The morning after the violent confrontation and anti-government protests on the Hrushevskoho Street. Photo taken on: January 20th, 2014. © Mykhaylo Palinchak |

Another dimension of the failure to protect the commons was the perceived failure of political elites to act in the interest of the common good. In the Bosnian capital of Sarajevo, protesters blocked parliament in June 2013 after it failed to pass a law to exit an impasse over issuing identification numbers that prevented newborns from obtaining identity documents and thus passports to travel – a failure that was live-threatening for babies requiring medical assistance abroad. In Bulgaria, two waves of protests shaped the country’s politics in 2013. The first protests, from January to March 2013, were directed against high electricity prices and the political elite more broadly for failing to represent citizens’ interests. After early elections, the new government named a controversial media tycoon to the post of security chief, triggering a second wave of protests. These were directed against the political elite and their focus on private interests over the common good. Greece too has seen multiple protest waves, especially from 2010 to 2012, against the austerity measures of the government.

These protests share many features with other movements around the world, in particular in the Mediterranean region, from Spain to Egypt. While some were directed against the authoritarian regimes in the Arab world, others vented their frustration against democratically elected governments. They all share a sense of grievance with the way the authorities administer the common good, the public space, and the state.

The striking feature of protests in Southeastern Europe has been that they took place in democracies that have undergone profound transformation since the 1990s. Yet the grievances expressed in the protests highlight the inadequacies of democratic transition in these countries. The introduction of representative democracy and market economies has not led to good governance that focuses on the common good. In some cases, the protests highlight ideological differences over the role of the state and the degree to which the state should be privatized. In most cases, however, the dissatisfaction of protesting citizens is less ideological, but focuses on the evident state capture by predatory political elites.

Informal networks of private interest have dominated parties and, by extent, the state in post-Communist countries of the region. The discourse of Europeanization or representing ethno-national interests has been utilized to disguise these private interests and led to a weakening of the state. This dynamic has been compounded by neo-liberal reforms and a more social-democratic understanding of the state by most citizens in the region. The global economic crisis since 2008 has been a conduit for the protests as economic hardship and austerity accentuated the gap between the social groups that gained from the state and those that did not. As such, the success of the protests cannot be measured by the resignation of a government or a simple fulfillment of a particular demand – by these standards, most protests have been successful. Instead, the larger paradigm of democratic and economic transition has been challenged, but what is lacking is a clear alternative. In particular, the EU and its integration process has not provided an answer as to how to control political elites and make them act in the interest of the common good. This is in part because the EU enlargement toward Southeastern Europe has failed to sufficiently transform the polities of the region and lacks mechanisms to monitor governance after a country joins the EU. Furthermore, the discourse of Europeanization and EU integration has become so ubiquitous that it is shared by the Turkish government of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and the protestors in Taksim, the ethnonationalist elites in Bosnia and those opposing them, and governments and their opponents elsewhere in the region. This broad consensus weakens the EU’s transformative capacity.

Leftist groups, from some parts of the protest movements to the most prominent new left party in the region (Syriza in Greece), seek to challenge the EU and discuss alternative economic and political models. But this is still vague and much of the debate remains focused on what they oppose rather than on viable alternatives. They also neglect that market economy and representative democracy as such are not a problem, as is demonstrated across Europe and beyond. Instead, the core problem remains weak institutions that are easy prey to the dominance of strong parties driven by narrow interests. However, it is difficult to transform the institutional landscape and create new political alternatives that break with this pattern. As such, the protests have largely subsided across the region, but there are still many grievances. The new tragedy of the commons remains: how to ensure that the state seeks to define and then protect the common good.

Research on these new social movements reflects some of the dilemmas of the movements themselves. On the one hand, scholars who adopt a neo-Marxist perspective are skeptical of neo-liberal policies and the consequences of the global economic crisis. On the other hand, scholars of democratization processes are more likely to focus on the inadequacies of democracy and the rule of law in the countries that witnessed mass protests. As a result, these perspectives lead to divergent views on whether the EU and the integration process is either a cause of the social grievances through neo-liberal reforms or a tool to remedy the inadequacies of unconsolidated democracies. Rather than viewing these two approaches as irreconcilable alternatives, there are commonalities. The critique of neo-liberal policies helps understand how economic and political transformation has failed to lead to states that respond to citizens’ needs and protect them from predatory elites. Yet the emphasis on democratization and the rule of law highlights why some liberal democratic market economies have been able to mitigate the economic crisis and remain responsive to citizen demands. As such, a productive research agenda has to reflect a plurality of approaches rather than settling only for one. The fact that we have witnessed protests both in post-Communist countries and in countries that did not experience Communism with the ensuing transformation process suggests that researchers also need to reconsider the paradigm of post-Communism as an analytical lens through which to study Southeastern Europe, and instead look at the entire region, including Greece and Turkey.


Florian Bieber is a Professor of Southeast European Studies at the University of Graz. He heads the Centre for Southeast European Studies that organized the conference Rebellion and Protest from Maribor to Taksim. Social Movements in the Balkans in December 2013 in Graz. Further information on the conference is available at Florian Bieber blogs on Balkan politics at


This article is part of our Enough! feature on Europe’s exploding social movements.

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