Stagnation or the consolidation of not-quite democracy in the Balkans

A few days ago, I attended an interesting discussion on democracy in Serbia. The panel presented a recent survey conducted by the Institute for Social Sciences in Belgrade. The results were not overall surprising, but highlight some interesting trends. In particular, most striking was the fact that while most citizens support a democratic system of government, they have a very skeptical view of democracy and a majority does not consider Serbia to be a full democracy, but some kind of hybrid between democracy and authoritarianism. This is  a considerably more gloomy view of democracy than rankings such as Nations in Transit or the Bertelsmann Index. It might be time for these to also take popular assessments of democracy in the respective country into account. Beyond that, there seems to be some a trend of democratic stagnation in the region. None of the regimes in the Western Balkans are dictatorships, but neither are they consolidated democracies. The problem already lies in the terminology: The term unconsolidated democracy, as used by Nations in Transit and many scholars implicitly suggests that it is “natural” to move to a consolidated democracy. In recent years, hybrid regimes have been taken more seriously and we had recently a good discussion on this regime type by Ivan Vukovic, a visiting fellow at the Center for Southeast European Studies, however the terminology is still often confused and confusing. Both the semi-authoritarian regimes of the 1990s (Milosevic, Tudjman) were hybrid regimes, as are the governments of Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia, Bosnia etc. today. Of course, they differ substantially, the former leaned more towards authoritarianism and the latter more towards democracy. The question arising from the discussion, especially with Irena Ristic and Vedran Dzihic, was whether or not these types of regimes should be considered not just a temporary glitch, but rather as a discreet and stable type of regime.

Decreasing support for EU integration and elsewhere in the region, as well as democratic backsliding in countries like Hungary suggest that there might be a permanent “democracy gap” in the making, i.e. the current democracies in Southeastern Europe might be stable and have a number of features that set them apart from liberal democracies. However, rather than seeing it as a deviation towards the inevitable goal of a consolidated liberal democracy inside the EU, it might be helpful to consider them as there to stay, EU membership or not. Of course, this is not to argue that there a liberal democracy is intrinsically impossible in the Balkans, a point that would smack of essentialism, but rapid change and catching up seems unlikely. If one takes this perspective, understanding how these regimes work is not just tell the story of how they deviate from liberal democracy, but rather how they empower particular elites and are strikingly resilient and adaptable. It also means that our tools to analyse these kinds of democracy are entirely inadequate. For example, Irena was noting that while party membership might indicate popular engagement with politics in a consolidated democracy, in hybrid regimes in Southeastern Europe, party membership means access to jobs, and not political engagement.

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One Response to Stagnation or the consolidation of not-quite democracy in the Balkans

  1. Alison Smith says:

    Thanks for the post. I agree, but think this should be viewed within a broader context of other European countries (e.g. Italy and Greece) moving away from democracy as the recession deepens.

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