Violence in transition: Reforms and rights in the Western Balkans
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The 1990s saw the breakdown of the former Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia which, since World War II, had developed a distinct economic system that included specific market and socialist self-management principles in production, distribution and decision-making processes. At the same time, the European Union opened up the possibility of full membership if these countries – now politically referred to as the Western Balkans – met the accession criteria claimed as essential to bring about fully-functioning and competitive market economies. The transition and accession processes were supported financially, politically and militarily by Western powers as a shift away from authoritarianism and poverty, while promoting democracy, human rights and individual freedom. This article argues that, contrary to this optimistic discourse, transition in the Western Balkans reflected and incorporated violence at different levels. The article shows that tensions between reforms and rights began in the 1970s, spurred by indebtedness and inequalities, pervading the transition process and deteriorating in the wake of the 2007-2008 global financial crisis. Social policy increasingly became framed along market- efficiency principles, challenging existing entitlements and rights, particularly with regard to education, social security and health. Vulnerable groups, such as the unemployed and the aged, experienced serious shortfalls in support and care. By the second decade of the twenty-first century, social protests against the deterioration in the levels of livelihood and the retrogression of social rights had erupted in several places. Violence was expressed not only in the form of direct bodily harm, but also in control exerted through indebtedness, the destruction of livelihoods, the denial of basic human rights, and the struggle for social justice.