From the Streets to the Parliaments: Municipalist Platforms and Eco-Socialist Politics in Zagreb and Belgrade

Multi-layered collage: Protesters rallying against the Belgrade Waterfront in front of the project’s central point, Kula Belgrade, a new city landmark. Artwork: Colnate Group, 2024 (cc by nc).
Artwork: Colnate Group, 2024 (cc by nc)

In former Yugoslavia, the multiple crises of capitalism have provoked new movements at the intersection of social and ecological concerns. Zagreb and Belgrade are among the most important sites of these struggles in the region. Not only do the crises have their critical junctures here, but the political possibilities for change also exist, provided that the authoritarian inertia of the state can be dismantled, as Norma Tiedemann observes.


Beginning in 2015, a wave of democratic political struggles at the local state level spread from Spain across the world under the name of New Municipalism. The hybrid actors of movements, unions, individual activists and parties emerged in response to the multiple crises of capitalist forms of society and their authoritarian management. They seek to democratize the (local) state, feminize politics, and transform economic structures to end inequality. The “municipalist platforms” governed in Barcelona and Madrid with the aim of implementing left policies and transforming urban institutions without becoming a traditional party. This model found sympathizers not only in Western and Southern Europe. Municipalist platforms were also founded in the capitals of Croatia and Serbia in the Southeastern European periphery, after years of extra-parliamentary activism in various fields. These initially local, urban-based actors have recently transformed into green-left parties challenging the authoritarian, clientelist regimes that have consolidated their grip on state apparatuses in recent years.

Zagreb Je NAŠ! (ZJN, Zagreb is Ours) and Ne Da(vi)mo Beograd (NDB, We will not give up on Belgrade/We will not let Belgrade drown) were founded in the mid-2010s and have since managed to enter the state institutional terrain, to revive the importance of oppositional, progressive work in the parliament and to change the political landscape. Since 2021, ZJN (or now: Možemo! – We Can!) governs the Croatian capital. And since 2022, NDB (or now: Zeleno-Levi-Front – Green-Left-Front), as part of the alliance Moramo (We Must), is represented as a small opposition in the city of Belgrade as well as in the national parliament. This is the first time since the collapse of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia and the civil wars of the 1990s that left-green forces rooted in social movements have made it into the institutions of the local and national state in Croatia and Serbia.

Reclaiming leftist ideas and values

The two platforms and their success – compared to the almost complete absence of left, emancipatory actors in the institutional sphere before – did not come out of nowhere. Their history goes back to the so-called New Left in the Balkans, which emerged from the deepest crisis of late capitalism around 2008. Since then, the political discourse and the groups articulating it have evolved in the context of different protest cycles and peaks that politicized the so-called democratic-capitalist transition in the decades after the breakup of Yugoslavia. Within the student protests against the neoliberalization of the education system, the Right to the City and feminist movements, transnational networks engaged in the establishment of solidarity economy and commons projects, many of those who have been the backbone of municipalism in Croatia and Serbia have collectively reclaimed leftist ideas and values against the discredited remnants of left parties.

The specific context and history of municipalist platforms in Southeastern Europe is important for understanding the character of these new actors and the kind of state apparatus they now face. While New Municipalisms are often described as radical democratic experiments in the context of a crisis of representative democracy, the municipalist platforms in Zagreb and Belgrade are not adequately characterized in this way. Although bourgeois-liberal democracy was formally established in the successor states of the Socialist Federation, it never really existed, which means that the current “crisis of democracy” needs to be understood differently than in Western Europe. State and society in both countries are constituted by the patronage networks of the ruling parties, which are intertwined with organized crime. Serbia and Croatia are characterized by major democratic deficits, limited freedom of the press, and systemic corruption.

For my Ph.D., recently published as a book, I conducted 56 interviews with municipalist actors during visits to Zagreb, Belgrade and some other places between 2018 and 2022. The overall analysis also includes a long historical reconstruction and some theoretical reflections on understanding post-Yugoslav statehood, which has much in common with other forms of peripheral statehood, for example in Latin America. The research has been a dialogue with materialist state theory and how it can be adapted to a context with different social and political conditions than the entities most state theory deals with, i.e. the capitalist West or the European core countries. This effort forms the implicit background of the following very brief reconstruction of who the municipalist platforms are.

Zagreb Je NAŠ!

After at least ten years of extra-parliamentary organizing that began with student protests in 2009, the group of people who founded ZJN in Zagreb entered the local institutional terrain as a small opposition force between 2017 and 2021. In 2021, the longtime authoritarian-populist mayor Milan Bandić died and ZJN won the regularly scheduled elections.

In their first institutional cycle as the Left Bloc in the City Parliament, the former activists tried to transfer their experience, knowledge and political style to a field that they knew mainly from the outside as a deadlock producing corruption scandals without consequences for the ruling elites. During these years, they vacillated between acting as troublemakers to break up entrenched routines and presenting themselves as the better government option, i.e., contributing to parliamentary debates with constructive policy proposals. They also brought new dynamics to the neighborhood and district councils, generated knowledge about the patronage veins of the local state system, and won smaller defensive battles through the interaction between institutions and self-organization. They supported residents when, for example, they demonstrated against the destruction of the last green space in their neighborhood and tried to revive the basic democratic instrument of the neighborhood assembly, which dates back to Yugoslavian times. The reaction this provoked within the urban political sphere was reflected in the results of the 2021 elections. Since then, ZJN is governing the capital in a coalition government.

This transition to the leading role at the top of the communal hierarchy meant a further transformation of ZJN as a political actor: from activism to parliamentary opposition to full responsibility for government. ZJN faced new problems that required solutions. For example, the crumbling building stock, whose years of neglect became strikingly apparent with the earthquakes in and around Zagreb in March 2020. But also the impenetrable machinery that the local state proved to be, challenged ZJN and its goal of reprogramming the local state apparatus to make institutions serve a public and common interest. They changed the structure of the new city administration, which now has significantly fewer departments and which they are trying to fill with personnel who are not tied to the former ruling party of Bandić. They have also created new channels of communication between the central city bureaucracy and the neighborhood and district councils in order to give the lower levels more opportunities to have an impact. But such structural changes consume time and energy and produce few of the visible results that their constituents demand. The mainstream press continues to discredit their efforts, and it remains to be seen whether they can repeat their electoral victories in the next national and local elections.

Ne Da(vi)mo Beograd

Starting as a small civic and urban political initiative, NDB has developed over the last eight years into a widely respected and serious opposition force within the broader green-left alliance Moramo. NDB’s roots also go back to the student protests of the mid-2000s and later struggles for urban commons, opposing the capitalization of urban space. The initiative was founded in 2014 as a movement against a gigantic urban renewal project. Its activist practices before entering the institutional arena in April 2022 ranged from the production of an alternative public sphere through newspapers, podcasts, and noise demonstrations during the COVID-19 pandemic-related lockdowns, to the use of public consultations, complaint mechanisms, and legal battles, to neighborhood organizing and support for ecological struggles in more rural and mountainous areas. Driven by the optimism generated by ZJN’s electoral victory, NDB paved the way for considerable hope that organizing resistance to Serbia’s authoritarian-neoliberal regime could have actual effects. In the municipal elections of December 2023, it was also their share of the votes that brought the ruling majority almost to the brink of collapse. As in the case of Zagreb, former activists have now been fighting for democratic, social and ecological transformation on the terrain of the local and national state for two years. They are using the instruments guaranteed to the opposition by the constitution to establish public control over the government, while continuing to rely on street protests and self-organization. In order to broaden their base and democratize their internal structures, they founded their own party in the summer of 2023 – the Zeleno-Levi Front.

Multi-layered collage: Galerija Belgrade shopping mall at the Belgrade Waterfront in front of the Belgrade cityscape, framed and perforated by a rally against the Belgrade Waterfront, which leads through a tunnel. Artwork: Colnate Group, 2024 (cc by nc).
Artwork: Colnate Group, 2024 (cc by nc)

Since their emergence, they have changed the political discourse in Serbia and exposed the deeply anti-pluralist and undemocratic practices of the ruling Serbian Progressive Party. Due to massive criticism of electoral fraud on the streets and from various groups and institutions, as well as difficulties in forming a stable government, new elections in the capital have been announced for June 2024. Hence, the continuous electoral mobilization in the country will not come to an end anytime soon. It drains on the one hand the resources of smaller political forces, but on the other also makes life uncomfortable for the president and his allies.

A democratic emergency brake

The political practice of both new political actors rests on two central pillars. One is the attempt to overcome the deep divisions that characterize Croatian and Serbian society – divisions based on religion, ethnicity, historical-political affiliation, or national identity. As a counter-narrative, they place the material quality of life at the center of their work. They keep emphasizing that it is more important to have good health care, mobility infrastructure, good jobs, gender equality, an intact environment, clean water and air, etc. than to argue about who was right in World War II.

The second pillar is democracy. Democracy has been central to the municipalist platforms and the new parties because neither the state as a relatively autonomous sphere nor political democracy has effectively emerged in Serbia and Croatia, even if the conditions for parliamentary democracy formally exist. Democracy has remained the unfulfilled promise of capitalist transition.

The new green-left parties navigate between transformation and affirmation of the liberal-democratic framework. Neither is a project of radical rupture, with a post-capitalist future on the horizon. They encounter a specific form of statehood and political landscape and develop their way of dealing with it. In view of the authoritarian consolidation and the unbroken networks of corruption that characterize Serbia and Croatia, the emancipatory potential therefore lies in the defense of political democracy against the unmediated imposition of particularistic interests of the ruling elites. Ultimately, they could act as an emergency brake on the democratic involution in the Southeastern European periphery.

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