Occupy Slovenia: A First-Hand View
Maple Razsa, a 2011-2012 Individual Advanced Research Opportunities (IARO) fellow, writes about his experience researching migrant activism among former Yugoslavs and how that led him to witness the Occupy Movement in Slovenia.
There are fifty of us gathered in a tight circle for a general assembly. Emil, 51, a migrant worker from Bosnia, reports from the Workers Dormitory Rent Strike. He describes the difficulties former employees of Vegrad are facing. Vegrad, a large construction firm that has been in bankruptcy for nearly 11 months, owes back pay of between $6000 and $19,000 to these workers, many of whom live in a company-owned dormitory. The court-appointed trustee not only refuses to pay these debts, she is also insisting the workers continue to pay rent to the dormitory or face eviction.
The workers have declared a rent strike, saying they should be able to stay on and subtract the rent from the back pay they are owed. If evicted, however, those with permanent residence risk losing social rights such as health insurance and those with temporary residence face deportation. Emil makes an emotional plea that those assembled—activists associated with Occupy Slovenia—take action against the management.
When I began research in Ljubljana, Slovenia, as an IREX IARO Fellow in July of 2011, I had not expected that my fieldwork would lead me to this kind of meeting, would lead me to study the local manifestation of a global protest movement that traces its origins to the Arab Spring of 2011. I set out to study the relatively modest, small scale political organizing of migrants to Slovenia, whether refugees, asylum seekers, guest workers or undocumented. Building on a decade of research with civil initiatives in the region I was aware that a small coalition of Slovene activists had been organizing with migrants for some years. Most prominently activists had helped to publicize the predicament of the Erased—those (primarily) born in other Yugoslav republics who were purged from the register of permanent residence when Slovenia achieved independence in 1992.
What interested me was how migrants who lacked the formal political rights of citizenship—and the Erased are the most extreme and paradigmatic example of this—nonetheless found ways to organize and make demands about living conditions, access to healthcare, and the visa regime that governed their residence and work permits.
I had been conducting interviews, gathering archival materials and carrying out participant-observation at the social center where many migrants gathered for more than three months when activists decided to build an encampment in front of the Slovene Stock Exchange, founding Occupy Slovenia. While this movement is interesting in and of itself, my research has continued to focus on the specific role of migrants within the movement and the particular stamp they have put on its practices, including the relative diversity of the encampment compared to occupations elsewhere, and the key roles that migrants, like Emil, have played in the leadership of the movement. As of this writing activists are still gathering for assemblies—177 days later—in front of the stock exchange. Having the opportunity to research the earlier history of activist organizing, then witness the emergence of this movement firsthand, I am in a position to begin to compare the struggle in Slovenia to struggles elsewhere. Surprisingly for a region that has been marked by ethnic intolerance, or perhaps precisely because of the local traditions of resistance to that intolerance, Occupy Slovenia has featured a much more prominent role for minority activists like Emil. Hopefully movements elsewhere can learn from these practices of inclusion.