A Macedonian Moment for the Balkans?

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After years of democratic decline in the Western Balkans, the new Macedonian government that took office in May 2017 constituted not just the first democratic transfer of power in the region for four years, but also a apparent break with the success of autocratic rule.The results of the local elections last Sunday ratify this change of government and give it not just much needed backing, but also clarify that after a decade of increasing authoritarian rule, nepotism and nationalism, most citizens back a different political course

Is there are “Macedonian moment” and what can be learnt from it? First a warning, the electoral success of Aleksandar Vučić in 2012 was by many seen as democratic normalization and a sign of Serbia’s democracy maturing. Instead, the state of media freedom and democracy has regressed significantly since. In Albania, the success of Edi Rama helped to break the nationalist and autocratic temptations of the Berisha governments. The re­cord of the Rama government, reelected just this year, has been mixed: on one side, it succeeded in sig­nificant reforms, on the other, the dominance of a strong self-centered prime minister does bear its risks.

These recent transfers of power stand as a warning to not just focus on people and their ability to “de­liver”, but rather on structural changes that make government more transparent and accountable. To some degree the new Macedonian government holds more promise as Prime Minister Zaev cuts a less charismatic and dominant leadership figure than Vučić or Rama and his power is based less on a hierarchical pyramid of power.

The Macedonian transfer of power holds two lessons for the wider region. The first is on the transfer of power itself and the second is on the aftermath. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the buz­zword for democratic change in the Balkans and beyond was “electoral revolution”, the change of an autocratic regime through a decisive election. This helped end Meciar’s nationalist thuggishness in Slovakia in 1998, the corrupt and nationalist Tudjman regime in Croatia in 2000 and the warmon­gering Milošević in the same year. Here the focus was on a broad opposition coalition that would over­throw the incumbent in an election, monitored by civil society with strong social movements and inter­national support.

The record of these transitions has been varied. Slovakia and Croatia did relatively well, Serbia had a mixed record, but the break with Milošević was decisive and liberating. Further east, in Ukraine or Geor­gia, the outcome was less clear cut, at least after an initial fury of reforms. A new generation of au­tocrats has been able to control electoral processes better than their predecessors and have also, for the most part been less antagonistic to the West. Thus, unseating them requires a different strategy. In Macedonia, it required a nearly two year long process that not only brought the undemocratic practices of the government to light to a domestic audience, but also gradually convinced the EU and key mem­ber states that the government seized being a partner (although some members of the European Peoples’ Party continued supporting the incumbent VMRO-DPMNE until after the elections in 2016). A combination of external pressure, such as the Priebe Report, the EU mediation that set up the special prosecutor, large scale so­cial movements and protests led to a change of government that only took place after intense interna­tional pressure following the violence in parliament orchestrated by the governing party in April 2017. Thus, unseating autocratic incumbents in the region will require a similar mix of revelation, mobiliza­tion, external pressure, and a critical juncture.

Such a Macedonian moment is increasingly becoming the only path toward renewing democratic rule in several Balkan countries. Key for long term change and transforming the “Macedonian moment” into a lasting legacy requires more than a change of leadership or new parties in power. From Milorad Dodik in the Republika Srpska in 2006 to Vučić in 2012, too often the hope of Western actors was pinned on finding the next reliable, reformist partner. The result has been support­ing the current generation of strongmen, who talk of reform when it suits them, but building a highly personalized system of control. Key for sustainable change will be strengthening institutions over people and the willingness of the new Macedonian government to building professional and transparent institutions and to break the power of patronage networks that are the main transmission belts between politics and citizens across the region. It is easy to conjure up the image of a generational change, yet the autocratic incumbents are often young, from Vucic and Gruevski, both 47 years old, to Milo Djukanovic, 55 years old. All came to power in their twenties and thirties, reminding us that youth is no protection from autocracy and even less from long rule.

The biggest failure of the democrats in the 2000s across the region was the failure to build and respect institutions and rules, often with the tacit consent and encouragement from outsiders. The informal presidentialism of Boris Tadić, the dubious coalition building in Kosovo and informal power of Milo Dju­kanović, just to list a few examples, all preventing the emergence of strong institutions and rules that are not easily bent.

Making the “Macedonian moment” sustainable also will require a new type of party politics. To date, most parties in the region have been essentially interests groups focused on gaining and main­taining power with only formal adherence to European type ideological distinctions. Overwhelmingly, these differences are superficial, pro-forma and purely instrumental. The result has been that parties are deeply distrusted and joined to get a job not to pursue a political commitment. Just following an external template and focusing on the form is not going to deliver.

Thus, thinking of new types of party politics will be necessary. One promising start was the election campaign in Macedonia’s most recent parliamentary election, continued in the recent local elections where the social democratic party SDSM sought to actively court Albanian voters and included candidates from the social movements against the government. Moving beyond the still too rigid ethnic divides in politics of the region and also in­cluding civil society are opportunities, as long as both do not evolve into tokenism and mere co-option. This transformation is all the more challenging as the Western European model of political parties is it­self in deep crisis as populist groups and “movements” seek to bypass conventional party politics. The Western Balkans had their share of populists, flash-in-the-pan candidates, and nationalists. However, without parties which are based on internal democracy and shared values and programs, such easy temptations that might turn into long autocratic hangovers remain likely. Thus, the “Macedonian mo­ment” is a reminder that it is an opportunity for a much longer and more uncertain transformation that awaits not just Macedonia, but most of its neighbors. ­

An earlier version of this text was first published by the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung in Political Trends & Dynamics Emerging Leadership in Southeast Europe

2 Responses to A Macedonian Moment for the Balkans?

  1. Zoran says:

    ” not just the first democratic transfer of power”

    what transfer is this when election losers form a not elected government, democracy? Ich glaub mein Schwein pfeift!!!!!!

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