“Like a game of RisiKo”: tacticising a water war in the Balkan Mountains

Convenors: Dr Nicolette Makovicky, (REES, OSGA) and Dr Agnieszka Kościańska (Leverhulme Fellow at REES, OSGA)

Speaker: Dr Ivan Rajkovic (University of Vienna)

The state regimes in the Balkans are increasingly targeting natural resources as a new frontier of privatisation. Such is the plan to create 3,500 small hydropower plants - a carbon-free technology which, however, implies putting rivers into pipes, with devastating socio-environmental impact. In the popular imagination, such development is seen as pushing beyond the limits of commodification, something that endangers 'life' itself. Focusing on the mountainous and ageing region of Southeast Serbia - where water grabbing is compounded by rapid depopulation and fervent peasant-cum-ecological activism - I explore 'Defend the Rivers of Stara planina' - a motley network of affected villagers and their urban kin, scientists and nature lovers, followed with bouts of digital activism mobilised through social networks. Waging a 'water war' against the investors, the ‘river defenders’ increasingly oppose the 'people' to the 'state'. But exactly what 'people' they summon? Neither nation, citizenship or class describe them fully. Rather, water here functions as an empty signifier - a nexus in creating an alternative eco-populist universality. Furthermore, resistance occurs together with speculation, as both the investors and the insurgents try to re-evaluate mountain’s potential riches as new abodes of value. I focus on the strategic thinking of defenders, in which they try to foresee the enemy’s point of view, create public sympathies that would work in their favour, and occupy new frontiers. In crucial moments, the two sides’ tactics mirror one another, and water war becomes one of mutual predation, interception, and parasiting.

Dr Ivan Rajkovic is a postdoctoral fellow at the Institute for Social and Cultural Anthropology at the University of Vienna in 2019. Before this, he was a Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow at the School of Slavonic and Eastern European Studies, University College London (2015-2017) and a Research Fellow in Eurasia group at the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology (2017-2019). Rajković’s first research has explored the transformations of the ‘social question’ after Yugoslavia, and moralisations of labour and market in Europe’s peripheries. Rajković’s new postdoc project at the University of Vienna explores the shift from work to ‘nature’ as the basis of new political alliances in the Balkans. This research focuses on the pan-regional development of small hydro-power-plants and is imagined as a building block for thinking about wider contemporary ‘eco-populisms’ - alliances that disparate groups create under the banner of ‘life itself’ – as well as new forms of expanded kinship and eco-authority making and breaking postsocialist states today.


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