Dversia’s special issue in English: Decolonial Theory & Practice in Southeast Europe

From dialogue to practice: Pathways towards decoloniality in Southeast Europe

Katarina Kušić, Philipp Lottholz, Polina Manolova


Southeast Europe has been marked by historical legacies of domination whereby the region has been treated either as vassals of the Ottoman empire, satellites of the Soviet bloc, or poor neighbours and members of the European Union (EU) – experiences that underwrite the region’s entrenched state of (semi-)peripherality and its contemporary manifestations. These are constituted in both material and ideational dimensions. In the former case, peripherality refers to a politico-economic integration on unequal and exploitative terms and the resulting dependencies. In the latter, it is engendered in essentialized representations of inferiority that are reproduced in both global imaginings of the region and in its own subjectivities and positionings.

Mainstream politics, intellectual projects, and local mobilizations have in many cases accommodated and even reinforced this inferior position by subscribing to the dream of “catching up” with and becoming part of Europe (and Western capitalist modernity at large). In recent years, the recognition of the impossibility of the promises of capitalist transition has produced two distinct responses. One the one side, there are those who mourn the unattainability of development and prosperity with tropes of “civilizational backwardness” and thus solidify the sense of inferiority and self-victimization. On the other, there are the ones who reject the European project in their agendas of (ethno-)nationalism, patriarchy, and “traditionalism”. The condition of peripherality and dependence, however, contains ruptures in which alternative visions can open and may offer new pathways and strategies for action that challenge and resist existing regimes and relations of power. Outside of the realm of formal politics, various initiatives and projects have confronted and exposed the contradictions and exclusionary logics of neoliberal transition and ideas of national grandeur through popular protests, activism, and art.

This special issue seeks to explore new vantage points for tackling discontents, contradictions, and unexplored alternatives in Southeast Europe by thinking with post- and decolonial theory and practice. We argue that decolonial thinking can be helpful in appreciating the region’s imperial and (quasi-)colonial legacy, in analysing contemporary forms of domination, hierarchy and resistance, and for identifying their corresponding practices of complicity and collaboration, but also of struggle, protest and reversals of the current neoliberal trajectory.

A number of scholars and intellectuals from the Balkans and beyond have vocalized the need to further entwine studies of SEE with postcolonial thought (e.g. Böröcz, 2001; Bjelić and Savić, 2002; Carey and Raciborski, 2004). This conversation between different perspective leads to new understandings and analyses of global processes of transformation, integration and hegemony, as well as their interconnected and embedded natures. More explicit steps towards the initiation of such a dialogue have been outlined by Sharad Chari and Catherine Verdery (2009). They argue that a dialogue between postsocialist inquiry and postcolonial theory has the potential to articulate a new way for rethinking contemporary imperialism and pertinent processes of accumulation. This rethinking would challenge Cold War representations and their effects on theory and politics, as well as provide an anti-racist critique of state-sanctioned processes of othering and disciplining (Chari and Verdery, 2009).

Inspired by this call and by extensive discussions on post- and decolonial theory world-wide, we have convened a workshop intended to foster this Dialoguing between the “posts” further and to specifically identify entry points for such a dialogue with researchers and activists from across and beyond Southeast Europe. In presenting a select few of the works from this event and the discussion it has initiated, this special issue seeks to explore both the potentials and possible misalignments of post- and decolonial theory and practice in Southeastern Europe. We have chosen this specific scope at the expense of a more explicit engagement with postcolonial or postsocialist theory (which are nevertheless also underlying this collection). This intervention is an attempt to capture and contribute to an intellectual shift and social practice that seek to not only understand, but also to challenge and change the world we live in.

The “dialoguing between the posts” scholarship have brought to the fore three overarching issues that we seek to take forward in this special issue. First, this literature highlights the interconnectedness of processes of economic integration and peripheralization of the region with global historical formations and dynamics between core and peripheries. These perspectives, which have exposed the imperial and in fact quasi-colonial ways in which geopolitical actors like the EU (Böröcz 2001) and its historical predecessors (e.g. Boatcă 2007) have extracted rents and shaped economic conduct in SEE, provide an important politicо-economic basis from where the region’s peripherality and inferiority can be considered in more detail (see Karkov and Majstorović in this issue).  

The second point we seek to address is the undecided, if not sometimes contradictory, positioning of the above-mentioned scholarship vis-á-vis the socialist legacy, its potentials, and contradictions. This concerns, first and foremost, the possibility that the experience of state socialism itself may offer inspiration and tools for building more equitable, freer, and peaceful societies today. By relegating local calls for social justice, public welfare, and worker rights to residual “socialist mentalities”, the idea of “catching up” robbed the region of precisely those tools that we need to imagine a different future. These can be found, we argue, in alternative understandings of citizenship and community that evolved in (South) East Europe’s socialist systems, and specifically in their alternative readings of modernity and interconnections that promised liberation, emancipation, and equality. On the other hand, however, it is necessary to interrogate how socialist SEE was also invested in racialized, Euro- and ethnocentric conceptions of progress and civilization that have produced regressive, exclusionary, and violent effects both during the socialist period and in its aftermath. The critical perspectives outlined above have started to uncover the historical layering of orientalising practices and imaginations, and the emerging scholarship on race in SEE has pushed this agenda further (Baker 2018a; Bjelić 2018). This issue’s contributions will further show how the current (ethno-)nationalist trajectory of the region complicates, and sometimes even appears to preclude, the possibility of resisting neoliberal reform and dispossession –   especially when nationalist “political entrepreneurs” have seized positions from which they can benefit from connections to global capital and investment markets.

The third issue is the need to strengthen the connection of SEE scholarship with the public and societal debates in the region, and, more specifically, with ongoing struggles against neoliberal and Eurocentric logics of progress and development. This is challenging because both public discourses and resistance struggles evolve with speed and intensity that is often hard to keep up with for academics who largely rely on peer-reviewed journals and books as a medium. Recently, new kinds of scholarship and writing have emerged that substantively engage with and in the struggles and attempt to resist or reverse processes of neoliberalization in SEE (see for instance Razsa and Kurnik, 2012; Bilić, 2016; Bieber and Brentin 2018; Deiana 2018). Building on these critical engagements, we seek to identify existing practices of resistance and activism towards more inclusive and just orders, or at least the sources and potentials of such sensibilities. Along the lines discussed above, we seek to show how decolonial thought can help inquire into processes of domination, transition, and resistance by reading them against the background of global formations of race, capital, and gender. Perhaps even more importantly, we seek to identify new entry points for societal activism and struggle against neoliberal restructuring and the internalization of essentialist and hierarchizing ways of thinking, acting, and knowing.

Nikolay Karkov’s contribution in this issue traces in further detail the emergence of a decolonial anti-capitalist critique; how it is rooted in, but also differing from, postcolonial scholarship; and, finally, how it presents an important avenue of the unfinished dialogue between the (Global) South and the East, i.e. the postsocialist world. His detailed survey of these debates and “missed encounters” leading up to the present synthesis of decoloniality and anti-capitalist theorizing provides the reader with the intellectual fundamentals foregrounding the contribution of this Special Issue.  

Manuela Boatcă’s analysis of modern citizenship and the Occidental epistemologies underlying it provides insight on the some of the founding myths and epistemologies of the “colonial matrix of power”. Examining Max Weber’s writings on the “Polish question”, i.e. imperial Germany’s anxiety about lands in Eastern Prussia being increasingly settled by Poles, Boatcă exposes Weber’s anti-Polish rhetoric and the racializing and “unmistakable colonial logic” by which he declares German citizenship as the only way for this minority to be “turned … into human beings”. She further demonstrates the status of citizenship as an “entail of colonial property”, which is most poignantly captured in the contemporary trend of “citizenship by investment” programmes. These enable wealthy people across the globe to acquire certain countries’ citizenship in exchange for capital investments, while, the same remains unreachable for the wider global population and especially for migrants and refugees, whose attempts to find shelter and social mobility are barred through racial and ethnic policing.  

In working to recover the socialist legacy and its positive potentialities, Zhivka Valiavicharska’s contribution to this issue focuses especially on anti-fascist/anti-racist campaigning, solidarity, and cooperation with Third World countries in socialist Bulgaria. At the same time, she makes clear that slogans of “people’s friendship” and solidarity with the Third World’s people of colour should not be romanticized and isolated from ethno-nationalist discourses and policies, as they most significantly manifested in campaigns of assimilation of ethnic and religious minorities.

Likewise, Bozhin Traykov identifies the positive achievements of socialism in Bulgaria in terms of welfare and social justice and exposes their systematic erasure in the present-day public discourse. This erasure enables the construction of the hegemonic idea that neoliberal capitalism is the one and only mode of social organization. While not explicitly taking a decolonial approach, this analysis builds an important foundation for a decolonial project as it enunciates the Bulgarian iteration of the colonial matrix of power and the corresponding hegemonic narratives and policies.

In this issue, Danijela Majstorović examines recent waves of protest against privatization and restructuring in BiH, but also in reaction to wrongdoing of criminal justice authorities*– all against the background of the country’s peripherality and marginality. Her analysis shows how through collective mobilization ordinary people are able to put pressure both on enterprise owners and decision makers. In so doing, they draw on the positive potential of the Yugoslav socialist heritage, as expressed in the plenums and principles of workers’ self-management. While these examples point to the decolonial potential of socio-political struggles and protests in SEE, their short-lived nature, narrow scope, and silence on political issues that could complicate them also indicate the need to further connect and sensibilize these projects towards a decolonial vantage point.

The complex historical entanglements that connect SEE to both the First and Third Worlds are the basis of Špela Drnovšek-Zorko’s piece in this issue, which draws on her research with Bosniak and Serb migrants in the UK to foreground the complexity of the encounter between SEE and coloniality. In navigating life as immigrants worthy of recognition in postcolonial Britain, her interlocutors attach themselves to whiteness and Europeanness. Using a racializing hierarchy allows them to distance themselves from “other” (non-White) migrants and make claims as deserving subjects in a profoundly racialized host society. At the same time, however, these migrants invoke the non-aligned history of Yugoslavia – in making sense of their own exclusion from the majority, they are able to reach into the history of anti-colonial solidarity and narrate a critique of empire and colonialism. This kind of work that “deconstruct[s] postsocialist subjectivity so that it acknowledges its colonizing and colonized position – as well as its anti-colonial legacy”, shows both the rich openings of coeval thinking and offers a starting point for future projects of anti-racist and decolonial reconstructions.

Marina Gržinić argues that, while racializing and dehumanizing tendencies of socialist regimes deserve critical attention, the project of socialist modernity cannot be dismissed as still offers important insights and inspiration for present struggles of resistance against ‘necro-’ and ‘turbo-neoliberal capitalism’. Elaborating her argument through a genealogy of conceptual relations between, respectively, capitalism, socialism, postsocialism, and post- and decolonial thought, Gržinić presents a pertinent argument that the present necropolitical capitalist regime can only be effectively tackled if trans-feminist, LGBTQI, anti-fascist, anti-racist, Marxist-Black Studies, and migrant standpoints are linked in theoretical dialogue and activist struggles.

Perhaps unsurprisingly in a collection that seeks to start conversations rather than sum them up, there are several issues that are important in the dialoguing between postsocialism and decoloniality, but that remain unexplored in the following pages. A key challenge to post- and decolonial theory and praxis in the region comes from the fact that the loudest rejection of European modernity comes from right-wing, nationalist, nativist, and violent politics. These narratives and movements remain subscribed to an ontology of difference that categorizes spaces and people according to frameworks of race and nation. Recent campaigns, public discourses, and perceptions about the need to curb the settling or even passing through of refugees are just one reminder of the significance and reified nature of identitarian thinking in SEE societies. Whether and how such thinking can be overcome is a question without an easy answer. Although we do not discuss this problem in detail in the special issue, it creates an imperative for decolonial approaches to delineate their endeavour from the ultimately exclusionary and dehumanizing logics of these self-proclaimed national emancipatory agendas.

This is a shortened version of the introduction text. See full text and bibliography in the .pdf file.

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