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The Importance of Political Decentralization: Reflections from the Balkans

November 1, 2023

True progress lies in the direction of decentralization, both territorial and functional, in the development of the spirit of local and personal initiative, and of free federation from the simple to the compound, in lieu of the present hierarchy from the centre to the periphery.~ Peter Kropotkin[1]

Everything about the dominant modern form of social organization tends towards centralization. Capitalism and the nation-state tends to take power away from local communities and concentrate it in the hands of narrow elites. This tendency towards centralization is not confined to one or two social spheres, but is spreading steadily, like a cancerous cell, into all areas of our common life. As Murray Bookchin suggests:

Centralized power invariably reproduces itself in centralized forms at all levels of social, political, and economic life. It not only is big; it thinks big. Indeed, this way of being and thinking is a condition for its survival, not only its growth.[2]

There are several factors at work in this trend. On the one hand, the capital-nation-state complex is moving at a certain speed, where decisions have to be made with as little delay as possible. This is required, among other things, by the mechanisms of capitalist growth and the rules of geopolitical statecraft, both of which imply an ever-increasing pace due to their innate logic of competition. This promotes the decrease of the number of people involved in decision-making so that decisions can be made with as little delay as possible.

On the other hand, this framework inevitably creates a narrow-privileged stratum which cannot but constantly strive to further consolidate and extend its authority. And while the members of this elite are antagonistic to the rest of society and result in a class in themselves, they are far from being a unified group; they are constantly at odds with each other, trying to absorb each other in order to increase their power. Of course, this doesn’t mean that they don’t unite and cooperate when they see that the regime on which their privileged position rests is in danger. In short, the organizational system that dominates most parts of the world today is an authority-centered cult that promotes a dog-eat-dog logic, in which you either expand your power (either politically or economically) at the expense of someone else, or you risk losing any obtained privileges.

But there is popular resistance to this trend, which resembles the double movement observed by Karl Polanyi in his magnum opus “The Great Transformation”. Just as peoples resist the creeping economization and marketization of society, communities attempt to resist the spread of political centralization. People in different geographical areas are organizing to support an institutional decentralization that can keep power closer to the citizens, so that people can have a real and meaningful say over issues that directly affect them. Such struggles often invoke and even put into practice institutional forms and democratic processes that can potentially serve as building blocks of a truly democratic future.

Let us examine these trends through the lived experience of a geography that I happen to know best – the Balkans. Specifically, I will focus on the disastrous effects of political centralization in Greece, as well as on some of the efforts at popular self-institution at municipal level in Bulgaria.

Political centralization in Greece

The state of local governance in Greece has never been rosy, but in recent decades the situation has only worsened. The trend described above towards the centralization of political power in the hands of narrow elites has been steadily implemented, with the most notable reforms in this direction being Kapodistrias in 1998 and Kallikratis in 2010. In 2019, more reforms in this direction have been passed that further weaken the power of municipal and community councils.

As a result of these policies, local communities and municipalities have been merged into super-municipalities that favor demagogic-type of management and keep citizens in the role of a passive clients to be served by “experts”. It has created an environment that nurtures strong regional lobbies with considerable power and influence, both economic and social, that are completely dependent on the central national authority. The creation of these lobbies has been greatly facilitated by the abolition of the two-term limit for mayors and regional governors, as well as by stripping local communities from any control over their budget, whose management has instead been concentrated in the hands of distant regional bodies.

This trend towards centralization has shown its shortcomings in the age of climate change. As deadly and massive forest fires and floods become a regular occurrence in Greece, local communities appear disorganized and unprepared to deal with these disasters. The centralized authorities seem too distant from the localities in need, with little to no knowledge of their specificities. Crucial preventive services have either been abolished due to neoliberal austerity or their management transferred elsewhere. As a result, the response of the authorities seems inadequate and delayed, which only adds to the chaos and destruction caused by the fires and floods. It is no wonder, then, that a growing number of reports suggest that, in the face of such disasters, residents rely more on each other, on local self-organization, and on the solidarity offered by people from afar, rather than on help from the authorities. Such self-reliance appears to be crucial to saving lives and homes, as it comes directly from the grassroots and is shaped by needs, context and specificity. It is also reminiscent of Kropotkin’s suggestion that mutual aid is the surest means for giving to each and to all the greatest safety, the best guarantee of existence and progress, bodily, intellectual, and moral.[3] Ultimately, communal resilience requires decision-making processes to be as close to the community as possible.

A collage of photos depicting self-organization and mutual aid among local residents and volunteers during the recent deadly floods in Central Greece.

Efforts of popular self-institution on municipal level in Bulgaria

Negushevo

The Bulgarian village of Negusevo is a settlement of almost 300 inhabitants at the foot of the Balkan mountains. Thanks to the struggle and initiative of the inhabitants of Negushevo, supported by the population of all the other villages in the municipality of Gorna Malina (to which Negusevo belongs), on 25 June 2011 the first successful local referendum in Bulgaria was held, where the inhabitants said a resounding “NO!” to the question: “Do you agree with the municipality granting rights pver municipal land for the exploration and opening of hazardous waste landfills, mines and quarries for subsoil mining or polluting industries?”

The referendum protected the beautiful nature of the municipality of Gorna Malina from the appetites of multinationals and oligarchs and was the beginning of its designation as a protected, green municipality.

In 2015, on the initiative of a citizens’ committee, a monument, named “The Tree of Life”, was built in the square of Negushevo, so that the history of the struggle and the referendum would not be forgotten. Instead of stone quarries – a stone tree and a public fountain.

The “Tree of Life” monument in the Bulgarian village of Negushevo.

Kresna

In the summer of 2016, in Bulgaria, residents of the municipality of Kresna rose up against the centralization of water-supplying services, a measure that puts municipal water resources in the hands of a centralized association. “In our municipality we only have water, we don’t want that taken away from us too,” residents say. The mobilizations lead to a very rare precedent for our current Balkan latitudes – the holding of a general assembly of the municipality’s population in the central square. Such an assembly is held on July 31, 2016, where citizens decide by vote that they do not want to join the new water association and that local water should remain in the hands of the municipality.

More than 2 thousand residents gathered in the square, which makes the decision valid, as a quorum was reached – 2 thousand people out of almost 5 thousand who were entitled to vote. In this way the municipal management of water is maintained.

It is worth noting how a few minutes before the meeting, the then deputy minister of regional development arrived at the municipality with some MPs from the ruling party to show pressure, but to no avail.

The General Assembly held on 31 July 2016. 

Zlatitrap

At the beginning of September 2021 and after strong protests, several hundred inhabitants of the village of Zlatitrap in the municipality of Rodopi (Bulgaria), for the first time in the history of their municipality, gathered in the village square to express their opinion in a general assembly of the population. The subject of the meeting was the authorities’ attempt to make the kindergarten of Zlatitrap village an annex of the kindergarten of the neighboring village of Brestovitsa.

The authorities justified their decision by claiming that it would save money, as there would only be one central administration responsible for all the kindergartens in the area. However, the residents of Zlatitrap argued that this would only save an insignificant amount of money, while removing control of this critical public structure from the municipality and opening the door to its possible future privatization.

201 people expressed their position against the merger of the two educational institutions. Citizens exercised their right and stated that they wanted their kindergarten to remain under municipal management. A quorum was achieved at the meeting and thus the residents saved, for the time being, their kindergarten from centralization.

The vote that took place at the end of the assembly.

The crucial issue of avoiding parochial localism

It is important, however, to be ever cautious about the danger of the struggles against political centralization being derailed into the backward path of parochial localism. Direct democracy cannot exist in a closed environment. According to Cornelius Castoriadis[4], in the situation of extremely closed societies there is nothing to prepare the people who constitute them to question established institutions and meanings (which, in this case, represent the principles and agents of closure), and furthermore, everything is set up in them in such a way as to make this kind of questioning impossible and unthinkable. In one such environment of enclosure there is always the real danger of what currently exist being perceived as the only correct setting, which is the first step towards xenophobic and authoritarian mindsets.

To prevent such dangers, and to create the conditions for the functioning of a real democracy, it is necessary to establish interconnected relationships that transcend community and social boundaries, so that the democratic values of constant questioning and critical thinking can flourish. This is why revolutionary thinkers like Bookchin insisted that confederalism is an integral part of any democratic struggle against centralisation. For this reason, he argues that:

Only insofar as confederation is an extension of participatory administration–by means of confederal networks–can decentralization and localism prevent the communities that compose larger bodies of association from parochially withdrawing into themselves at the expense of wider areas of human consociation.[5]

To avoid such a risk, it is up to each of us to take an active part in the struggles and push them in a democratic and ecological direction.


[1] https://theanarchistlibrary.org/library/petr-kropotkin-anarchism-from-the-encyclopaedia-britannica

[2] https://theanarchistlibrary.org/library/murray-bookchin-libertarian-municipalism-the-new-municipal-agenda

[3] https://theanarchistlibrary.org/library/petr-kropotkin-mutual-aid-a-factor-of-evolution

[4] https://www.aftoleksi.gr/2022/03/17/the-federalist-principle-in-castoriadis-project-of-direct-democracy/

[5] https://theanarchistlibrary.org/library/murray-bookchin-libertarian-municipalism-the-new-municipal-agenda

Yavor Tarinski

Yavor Tarinski is an independent researcher, activist and author. He participates in social movements around the Balkans, as well as in transnational organizations, dedicated to the production of grassroots knowledge. He is a member of the administrative board of the Transnational Institute of Social Ecology, of the editorial board of the Greek digital journal & publications Aftoleksi, as well as bibliographer at Agora International. Among his books are "Concepts for Democratic and Ecological Society" and "Reclaiming Cities: Revolutionary Dimensions of Political Participation".