Civil Society Resistance Responses to Failed International Liberal State and Peace Building, in the cases of Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo and North Macedonia

Research project
Active research
Project period
2023 - 2025
Project owner
School of Global Studies

Short description

Liberal peace interventions initiated by the international community in the 1990s are seemingly collapsing at various places around the world. New counter resistance activism is on the rise, questioning mainly Western state- and peacebuilding interventions that have failed. This project deals specifically with the resistance practices of the “new” civil society that challenges liberal peace interventions that began more than two decades ago, as well as the failed state structures that followed, in three cases in the former Yugoslavia: Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo, and North Macedonia. The study will explore - theoretically and empirically - the new bottom-up civil society activism that vocalizes the need of improvement of social justice, material fair distribution, as well as establishing social market responsible socio- economic policies.

Project members

  • Michael Schulz, University of Gothenburg
  • Geraqina Leka, State University of Tetova, North Macedonia


Civilian populations have increasingly used various civil resistance tactics to challenge the spread of autocracy tendencies and the negative consequences of neoliberalism. One such specific civil society response has been applied against liberal peace interventions initiated by the international community in the 1990s. Currently, seemingly these interventions are collapsing or become stalled at various places in the world and new counter resistance activism is on rise and questioning failed, mainly Western, state- and peacebuilding interventions. This project deals specifically with the resistance practices of the “new” civil society that challenges liberal peace interventions that began more than two decades ago, as well as the widely acknowledged failed state structures followed from these interventions in three cases in the former Yugoslavia context: Bosnia-Herzegovina (BiH), Kosovo (KOS), and North Macedonia (MK). Popular opinion polls from these countries show an increase of EU skepticism and disbelief in donor dependent Non-Governmental Organizations’ (NGOs) capacity to deliver the peace expectations. Generally distrusted and corrupt elite politicians with nationalist agendas have rather managed to exploit the peace interventions for their own agendas, and paradoxically, international donors, and in particular the EU, have rather contributed to strengthen the elites they initially intended to prevent from becoming influential. Meanwhile, socio-economic conditions have worsened, and public grievance and distrust of state institutions have led to occasional mass-mobilized protests. Since early 2010s various waves of protests in the Balkan region have erupted, seeking to place their social, economic, and political changes and demands on the agenda. These counter-transitions can be expressed as protests, sit-ins, demonstrations, boycotts etc, which in turn has created solidarity and cooperation, fostering a class concern across ethnic identifications.

Purpose and aims

This study will explore - theoretically and empirically - the new bottom-up civil society activism that vocalize the need of improvement of social justice, material fair distribution, as well as establishing social market responsible socio-economic policies. The increased grievance has not firstly been expressed in public protests but rather as avoidance resistance activism. Traditionally, resistance in the Balkans has primarily taken place underground, much due to fear of authorities’ repressive measures, but have more recently also occasionally burst out in the public space, as for example it did in BH in 2014 in Tuzla when people protested against governmental inefficiency, poor governance and corruption, and in 2012 and 2016 in Skopje in MK due to similar reasons. However, these new underground activities are mostly creating new spaces and arenas where political discourses that counter the nationalist elites are emerging. For instance, several youth and cultural centres have acted as hidden microcosmos for alternative ideas of pan-Yugoslavian nostalgias. As Belloni underlines, these activities have often been overlooked as bearers of relevant agency. Above all, cultural spaces of various kinds, such as theatres and art galleries, and youth centres, are spaces where these resistance activities are born and developed.

The social movement research has generally often overlooked these activities and underestimated their role for social change. Hence, there is an imminent need to place more direct research focus on these counter resistance activities in the Western Balkan cases and inquire these new civil societies. At the same time, we must remember, most protests endorsed ideas of emancipation and liberation for all ethnic groups, but all protests have not always been unarmed, emancipatory or progressive. One example that illustrates this is the case of the populist movement called Lëvizja Vetëvendosje (Movement for Self- Determination) in Kosovo that acted violently in its push for self-determination based on an exclusive one-identity-project. Also, the core of this movement’s resistance actions laid the need for accountable, uncorrupted, and ethical politics as well as local autonomy from external rule (UNMIK, EULEX, etc.). Hence, we need to carefully map and identify the various actors of the “new” civil society, as well as inquire what resistance activities they apply.

Hence, this project aims at investigating how new resistance underground as well as public movements, within grassroots civil society, challenges peacebuilding interventions, how they interrelate to the broader public’s disappointments, i.e. to understand if the resistance as an expression of the peace envisaged by the intervention is omitted, misplaced, or simply absent. By including the broader public in the analysis, one can also investigate the extent of the broader social support base of these “new” civil society arenas and spaces, and its potential impact for social change. The very normative idea of peacebuilding is that those immediately concerned and affected by armed conflict, i.e. the grassroots and broader public, should be involved, or even the owners, of the conflict transformation process. However, when large parts of the population are downplayed or left out, and even neglected, as it de facto often has occurred in the liberal peace interventions, the public start to raise objections against the way the peace process is handled, and increasingly lose trust in the efficacy of the process.

Research question

The project is guided by the following overarching question: What role does the new civil resistance play against perceived failed and stalled peace process intervention and how does it relate to the broader public’s views and expectations of peace?


The mixed method approach includes both qualitative semi-structured interviews with civil society activists, and structured quantitative survey data of public attitudes in the three cases BiH, KOS, and MK. The units of analysis, the various applied Avoidance, Breaking, and Constructive resistance practices (ABC of resistance), will be analysed in a way to enable an assessment of how they contribute to establish a new counter resistance force against the liberal peace intervention and the negative impacts of it. Hence, the analysis of the ABC resistance practices, which is inspired by a process tracing approach, will be traced back, by applying a from the moment they evolved and linked to how they have influenced the current context. Although the three cases are very different from each other, they all stem from the context of the historical breakdown of former Yugoslavia and can be suggested to be typical cases of long-term liberal peace interventions. All three cases are constituted of at least one major ethnic group, and one major minority, and include additional smaller minorities.

BiH is a case where external international actors imposed a liberal peace to prevent further armed conflicts and ethnic cleansings, which, via the Dayton peace accord 1995, resulted in a territorial and administrative division of the country along ethnic lines. Kosovo is a case where international actors from the West, and without the UN mandate, contributed to a state-building project, that does not have the support of all permanent UN security council members. Also, the UNMIK’s (tasked to govern Kosovo provisionally) delays in transferring power to local institutions and in failing to promote local ownership has generated conditions for civil resistance. North Macedonia is a case that is often seen as a the only "successful" liberal peace project in former Yugoslavia because it did not have the same armed conflict intensity as in the other two cases and resulted into the formation of a political consociationalism system. At the same time, the Ohrid Framework Agreement from 2001, mediated by external Western powers, served as the basis for the political system is a highly disputed agreement to this day, enjoying contrasting levels of support across the two major ethnic communities.

The main qualitative data collection method is the semi-structured interview technique. A careful mapping of relevant organisations in the three countries will be made before systematic interviewing will take place. This also includes a triangulation approach by applying a combination of data collected from interviews with activists (and related persons), participant observation of specific resistance strategies and data analysis of relevant documents. The aspects of the analysis of civil society activist will serve as the structured themes of the interview guide, however, there is also space for the interview subjects, during the interviews, to elaborate on aspects of their activities that may not be covered by the above discussed analytical toolbox. A software will be used to code and partly analyse and compare the large amounts of individual narratives from interviews and collected document sources, to identify shifts and perceived outcomes, and from that abstract and substantiate a meta-narrative of process towards change. Selection for the qualitative semi-structured interviews is made from various representatives from each civil society representatives that are engaged in the “new” bottom-up civil resistance. By applying a process tracing method, where the ABC civil resistance strategies interrelation, relative efficiency and magnitude are analysed, the project aims to create typologies of causal pathways for the different resistance strategies in the three structural contexts, thus enabling us to study whether the same resistance methods may have similar impact and how it unfolds over time in different contexts. By doing so, we will be able to investigate which resistance strategies have a certain impact in different contexts, and why, and through what mechanisms and causal chains. This enables us to create different generalized pathways of how and when various civic resistance strategies unfold in society over time and how and why they gain broader public (quiet) support in challenges against corrupt local elites and liberal peace intervention’s negative consequences.

The interviewed activists serve as one of the primary empirical sources of information. Also, available reports, notes, and self-evaluations from these representatives will serve as sources of information. The following numbers of interviews will be conducted in each case: approx. 50 civil society representatives in each country (BiH, KOS, and MK). The interviews mentioned here subsume the case histories of individuals as well. Outside the direct participants of the new civil society resistance platforms, interviews with approximately thirty peace activists, religious leaders, and politicians, will be made in each country to analyse how they perceive the activities of the new civil society resistance activities (as solid alternatives, challenges, threats, etc.). Overall, approximately 240 interviews will be conducted, and constitute the primary base for the qualitative data analysis. Interviews with civil society representatives will also serve as inputs for answering how the work with ABC resistance tools work, and how they perceive the long-term effects/impacts of the relationship building with similar new civil resistance networks, and potentials for longterm social change from below.

The main quantitative data collection method will be a structured survey poll of public attitudes in the three cases respectively. The idea is to collect data that can contribute to analyse to what extent the new civil resistance networks, arenas and spaces reach out to and do have support in the broader public in each country (BiH, KOS, and MK). A statistical random sample will be taken in each country of approximately 1200-1500 participants. The data for the three surveys will be collected with the help of a) the National Central Bureaus of Statistics in each country, who will ensure that random sample of the public is correctly made, and b) by sub-contracting and transferring funds to the polling institutes we collaborate with in each country. Initial contacts have been made with the National Democratic Institute in BiH, Institute for Development Policy (INDEP) in KOS, and the Institute of Democracy in MK who all have long experience of conducting survey studies. The institutes will conduct the interviews (face-to-face) in BiH, KOS and MK. The interviewers from the sub-contracted institutes will, ahead of the data collection, become instructed and trained for this specific study. One of the main dependent variables to be analysed are the “levels of the grievance” and “resistance willingness” correlated with various operationalized independent variables of peace visions/expectations (as well as (intersectional) background variables).