Emergent Ecological Movements: Fighting Privatization of Water Resources in Slovenia

Eco-initiatives have proliferated in former Yugoslavia, forming the most vibrant part of societies and thus giving hope after years of despair. In Slovenia the movement “Za pitno vodo” (For Drinking Water) can serve as a starting point for the politicization of this moment, Gal Kirn and Karla Tepež argue in their contribution to the BG text series “After Extractivism.”


In recent years, the region of former Yugoslavia saw a slow growth of left political formations that have for the first time after the breakup of Yugoslavia openly announced anti-systemic positions. They promoted democratic socialism or green-left platforms that envision a transition to a socially and ecologically more just society. Many of the leftist initiatives have been directly involved in mass uprisings, urban and student protests, pro-migrant and LGBQT+ issues in the past ten years, fighting against the process of neoliberal privatization and discrimination on the one hand, and promoting the expansion of the politics of commons (see Stojaković and Štiks, 2021) on the other. Most recently, a major extractivist push on water resources and mines has given rise to many new ecological initiatives.

The left was born under great difficulties in the region, which was strongly marked by ethnic wars, extreme nationalism, and neoliberal restructuring of the political economy (see Kirn, 2021). Despite various obstacles, a slow entry into the political arena could be documented: from the entry of the Left Party (Levica) in Slovenia into parliament (from 2014) and into the recent left-liberal government (2022) to the Zagreb platform Možemo, which took over the mayor/municipality of Zagreb, and also Moramo in Belgrade, which achieved notable results (13%) in the Belgrade municipal elections. All of these left party formations are particularly strong in the urban centers of Ljubljana, Zagreb, and Belgrade, and have been programatically the most supportive of green politics.

Our text posits the political hypothesis that a future transformative politics – not just for the region – must transcend the comfort zone of the urban educated middle class and articulate a politics beyond corporativist interests (that only defends a particular social group) and the urban/rural divide.

Slow birth of (environmental) Left in the former Yugoslavia

The narrative of Fukuyama’s “end of history” has been reloaded, as has Fisher’s “slow cancellation of the future”: it seems that both our history and future of emancipation have been sold many times. But in order to create a platform for a transformative Green Deal, or even Red Deal, we need to show that the eco-urban initiatives – which have grown considerably and radicalized in recent years – have succeeded precisely because of existential concern and vision: eco-urban initiatives fight for our future and here is a basis and a new possibility of inter-generational solidarity.

If the ecological and critical discourse has for years been proclaiming a climate emergency in the age of the Capitalocene and – rightly – pointing to the environmental catastrophe that has already occurred (cf. Malm’s “Progress of this Storm”), it should also be noted that part of the apocalyptic discourse promotes a general return to the “state of nature” and the naturalization of war as a recipe for resolving conflicts/antagonisms. For this reason, the cultivation of an emancipatory horizon of future is crucial and will need to link social and climate justice into any critical reflection and collective action.

The recent ecological turn in the former Yugoslavia cannot be considered as something completely new. After all, there is a regional history of environmental struggles, without which the interlocking with the Western modernization cycle – often formulated from a deficit position of “lagging behind” the West – is unthinkable. Of course, there were few green parties in the former Yugoslavia, but critical ecological thinking had its first roots in the period of “late” socialism, i.e., in the late 1970s and 1980s, ranging from prompt translations of newest literature to the organization of conferences and anthologies (currently, Aleksandar Matković is working on this part of the forgotten history).

An important part of socialist-democratic civil society in the 1980s were a handful of ecological initiatives that were already addressing various individual problems (e.g., a nuclear power plant in Slovenia and heavy polluters in some regions). It should be recalled that one of the very first democratic political parties in Slovenia was the Green Party, which received 9% of the vote in 1990 (it was a short-lived party, as it merged with Liberal Democracy shortly thereafter). In the absence of green party politics in Slovenia and the region – until recently, green politics was never a serious political force – a growing NGO sector has developed over the past two decades.

Environmental thought and practice took place predominantly outside formal institutions, while the wave of neoliberal “modernization,” from social democrats to the far right, was characterized by an openly anti-environmental stance and private investments in industrial projects that caused a massive erosion of ecological standards, striking levels of air pollution across the region, and consequently poorer health of local populations. As crises worsened and environmental resource extraction increased, with the construction of hydroelectric dams, lithium mines, and fracking, critical consciousness also grew and calls for political action abounded. What we have seen in the last three years, especially in Serbia and to some extent in Slovenia (while in Croatia a large part of the eco-left has entered the Zagreb City Council), is a radical spread of initiatives.

The case we want to present is the political process that successfully organized the referendum against the privatization of water supply in Slovenia. This case can now be seen as a blueprint and a catalyst for ecological thinking and political practice.

The referendum against the privatization of water in Slovenia

The largest environmental mobilization to date in Slovenia resulted in the overturning of the contested Water Act. In March of 2021, Slovenia’s government passed amendments that expanded the ability to build commercial objects (such as restaurants, stores, parking lots, etc.) while making it more difficult to protect the right to access water as a public good. The campaign “Za pitno vodo” (For Drinking Water) has fought against the accelerated provisions of the Water Law, arguing that they would prioritize private capital at the expense of human health and the destruction of ecosystems in coastal areas (from the sea to lakes and rivers). Ajda Pistotnik, an ecological activist and analyst, argues (in a personal exchange) that after one could observe “ecological struggles around water resources in the last decades in the Global South, now they have fully entered into European (semi)periphery. In the case of Slovenia, this catalyzed a major conflict between local communities and big business that is aligned with our governments.”

Artwork: Colnate Group (cc by nc)

The starting point of the campaign was the frustration about the non-transparent and fast adoption of the new Water Act by the Parliament, while public debate about the controversial articles was limited if not completely neglected. Each of the environmental organizations involved had their own point of view on the harmful effects of the law – from an environmental, social, and political perspective. A broad coalition of 32 different non-governmental organizations and initiatives from across the civil and political spectrum launched a strong referendum campaign centered around climate and social justice.

The first challenge was to collect 40.000 verified signatures to call for the referendum. In just a few weeks, the coalition managed to bring together a large network of volunteers who successfully collected more than 50,000 signatures despite the many challenges. The campaign was thus not led by a single strong actor – in the Slovenian context of referendum campaigns, either a trade union, the Catholic Church, or a large coalition of political parties – but by several actors who managed to form a committed community and an ecological movement. Although the government set the date for the referendum in the middle of summer, the movement did not lose momentum: the campaign managed to politicize not only the issue of water, but also the issue of access, commonality, democracy and, as one of the main initiators, Nika Kovač from the Institute 8th March said in the weekly Mladina, “it became a question of the kind of society we want to live in.” Merging the different positions of activists, a part of civil society, and a community, overcoming the single-issue focus of organizing and using the past experiences of NGOs, while at the same time working in an in-between space, using the existing institutions and transforming them into an infrastructure to fight against the acts of those same institutions – all this led to one of the most successful mobilizations in the history of Slovenia.

This campaign resulted in 45% of eligible voters casting ballots (which is a high number for referendums), with nearly 87% opposing the July 2021 amendment to the Water Act in July 2021. This shocking result for Janez Janša’s government, which paved the way for the privatization of water and fracking, was a remarkable victory for the campaign. As Ajda Pistotnik, one of the environmental analysts at the Policy Lab, claims (in personal correspondence), that the campaign and the result of the referendum “showed one of the first strong all-green coalitions between many organizations and initiatives as well as political parties that brought a serious impetus for ecological thinking and action.” This heterogeneous coalition was successful because it took advantage of the intermediate position between working inside and outside the institutional context and indicated a move beyond a focus on a single issue. What was initially just an amendment to a specific law became a catalyst for nationwide campaigns and debate.

The movement represents an important victory against the policies of the Janša government, paving the way and political momentum for the then upcoming parliamentary elections, where the first new ecological party, Vesna, was founded. Finally, the victory of Robert Golob’s new Svoboda party was due not only to the great dissatisfaction of most voters with Janez Janša Orban-style governance and neoliberal economic policy, but is also to be to attributed to the fact that the Svoboda party appropriated some of the green dynamic and energy from the referendum movement.

The party’s main slogan and programmatic point during the election campaign was structured around the “green modernization” of Slovenia, the future construction of solar plants throughout the country. In view of this, a new kind of neoliberalism can be summed up in the formula “Electrification – Soviets.” After the change of government many in the ecological movement and the referendum campaign have become increasingly attentive/critical to the government’s slow action on environmental policy. One small but important step was announced just a week ago, namely, that the Slovenian government opted out of the Energy Charter Treaty. The latter allows corporations to sue the national government in arbitration courts if their investments (read: dirty profits) are thwarted (read: heavily taxed and constrained by environmental standards).

Our eco-political moment?

Probably the most exciting and refreshing development of ecological initiatives is currently found in Bosnia and Herzegovina and, most notably, in Serbia, which has become a highly globalized territory. As Pistotnik observes in our personal correspondence, the “water conflicts bundle a number of issues. They are struggles over the limits and frontiers of new extractivisms, over the shape of European integration under the imperative of green transition, and, last but not least, over new investment opportunities for international banks.

Even though we do not hear much about it from mainstream news networks, various civil society and new ecological initiatives are not taking the legalistic approach, but have been capable of mobilizing big masses of people on the streets. With the help of sit-ins, they are closing roads and even highways, thereby blocking hydro dam or other extraction projects, like Rio Tinto.”

Due to the over-saturation of official politics with the dominant Vucić party in Serbia, many committed individuals and groups saw ecological initiatives as an “apolitical” but socially responsible activity. However, due to the corruption and brutality of the existing political framework, political initiatives were soon confronted with extreme police violence, media framing, and interference in protest – which made most participants aware of their politicality. Blockades of bridges, highways, and roads drew tens of thousands of participants from all classes and walks of life.

Again, given the absence of political green parties, the question is whether and how the relationship and shift between movements and their entry into institutional contexts – whether by NGOs or political parties – is conceived and whether it continues to advance the struggle for social and climate justice. What can be learned from these experiences?

From Slovenia to Serbia, we should think about cultivating the space in between, where the institutional framework can be used as an infrastructure to spread the growing emancipatory moment, without neglecting the activist position. Ultimately, we need to rethink the political system we live in and its flaws. Party politics without grassroots work and branching out into critical thinking and movement becomes an ossified formation, a party of the established order – a path that the German Green Party has very much taken. However, the insistence of following only NGOs and grassroots work points to the structural limits and limited room for manoeuvre for social change. A future transformative politics must therefore go beyond corporativist interests and bridge the gap between urban and environmental political divisions of labor in order to even begin to address the multiple crises we face.

Editor’s note: This text is a contribution to the Berliner Gazette’s “After Extractivism” text series; its German version is available here. You can find more contents on the English-language “After Extractivism” website. Have a look here: https://after-extractivism.berlinergazette.de

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