A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure to discuss authoritarianism in the Balkans, the far right in Europe and the crisis the EU with Naum Panovski, a Macedonian theater director and intellectual based in New York, for the Macedonian weekly Fokus. I am posting the discussion we had in Brooklyn here in full.
Naum Panovski: We are witness today to a dangerous rise of fascism, revision of history and mass corruption all over Europe. And it is apparent that EU is not addressing these issues in a way it should and could. It seems that Europe has not learned from its sordid past. On the occasion of Europe Day, you have pointed out that “Today Europe is weak, willing to trade its values for “security” with dictators, it is divided and it’s opponents are stronger than ever since 1950.” Is this placing EU on the dangerous track of disunity and disintegration? How do you see Europe from here, from Manhattan and from the banks of East River?
Florian Bieber: The irony is that for the past 20 years the rhetoric in Europe was there is no alternative to Europe, there is no alternative to liberal democratic reform, and this is the only way. And this was the message to the countries of Eastern Europe: There is only one way you can do it, and basically it is catching up with the West, and when you do it that way, then eventually you will be a part of the West, in a broader sense, and you will have liberal democratic system, which is stable consolidated democracy and in so doing you are part of the EU and that is the end of the story. And there is no alternative to that. But now we discover that of course there is alternative. It may be worse, but there is alternative. The alternative might be ideologically incoherent, but reality is not based on ideological coherence. And many of the Balkan countries, as well as Austria, Hungary and Poland have challengers to liberal democracy and the EU. They are not outright authoritarian or fascist, yet they threaten the pillars of the liberal democratic consensus. They all claim that they want majoritarian democracy, they talk of human rights, but they define human rights differently. And the question is how do you define human rights and democracy. So it is in a certain way the challengers are interpreting reality in different way. So for example, if you take the right-wing in Croatia, and what HDZ and Hasanbegovic [Croatian minister of culture] is doing, they are eager to rehabilitate or at least relativise the fascist past. If we look at Orban in Hungary, he rehabilitates the Horthy regime, but he is also eager in developing his own model of rule more coherently than elsewhere. He is actually introducing a model of rule which is majoritarian, plebiscitary, but has very strong authoritarian dimension. It is of course still amorphous model but based on coherent system of thought. It is similar case with Gruveski’s authoritarian rule in Macedonia or Kacyinskis government in Poland, and different from more eclectic authoritarian patterns elsewhere, as in Serbia or Montenegro.
Naum Panovski: Well, when we look at what you articulated as their different interpretation of reality, I think that we have to bring here “something” that I call a their lack of humanist point of view, which is turning upside down what it is good, ethical, what is socially acceptable; what is our concern and care for the “other”, that is the idea of otherness. For example, way back at the beginning of the this century there was editorial in Le Monde, which ended in a genuinely noble and memorable manner. It says: “What menaces us all at the beginning of the twenty-first century, in France, as in the United States, but also in Israel, as in Palestine, in India, as in Pakistan, is the isolating of the Other in his identity-national, ethnic, or religious. . . . To better know the Other in his own language and his own imagination is not to renounce oneself. It is, on the contrary, to accept the plurality of worlds, the diversity of visions, and, above all, a respect for differences.”
Well keeping this mind, I think we live today in a world which is all about ME. That is, it is ME the ruler who sets the rules and policies. I think there is a distortion of truth and distortion of reality, and what they, these modern dictators, bring to the table is in fact very distorted way of thinking. It is a fabrication and faking of truth and reality, inspired on one hand, I believe by the aggressive Tea Party ideology in this country and on the other be the revival of religion as a political entity and force.
In that sense I recognize that tested matrix practiced all over fractured Balkans, and as a result we see there today how fascism is openly marching in Croatia, or in Serbia, while in Macedonia Gruevski’s dictatorship and the brutality of his gang has devastated the entire country. How did we come here? Why? Why we did not say, stop? Why we did not say; that is not right. That is enough!
Florian Bieber: You have mentioned many points here which I believe are interconnected. Ironically, the populists have become constructivists. And they are very good at it. You have to create debates which construct meaning, but in their case doing that they also disguise other intentions, other elements which are engaging and relevant. There a number of these cultural and ideological battles in Europe. In Poland, Hungary and Croatia, the Communist period is still an important point of reference with the government dividing the society in democrats (themselves) and (post-)Communists, in some cases, as mentioned earlier, the historical reinterpretation is about World War Two. The rehabilitation of WWII collaborators with the Nazis in Serbia and Croatia is indicative. It is an irrelevant battle. A battle about which we wonder who cares about it. That is not people’s bread and butter issues. We have other existentially important issues. Yet it is a distraction, very effective distraction, sidelining reality. And what is striking is that it works. It is engaging enough and the people’ discussion is taken away from the reality and more relevant topics. In Croatia the debates keep coming back to Bleiburg and Jasenovac, how to interpret the role of the partisans and their crimes and the “Independent State of Croatia” (NDH) . This debate is highly politicized and has little to do with serious historical research, but with political score-settling. Instead, it should be historians’ discussion and in serious historical debates, this is not a relative question. There can be no doubt that both the NDH and Serbian puppet regime were collaborators and that the NDH was fascist, and hardly a state. But the fact that this is a subject of a public debate at this particular point of time is striking. In Macedonia, the government’s “antiquisation” campaign has sought to not just reinterpret the recent past, but to impose a whole new narrative of the nation. Such story-telling is of course classic nationalism, but most importantly, it is an effective distraction.
The other element here is what you call humanism, I will call empathy…
Naum Panovski: Yes, we can call it empathy or as Filip David calls it, solidarity…
Florian Bieber: Yes, yes… solidarity can be the word, but I call it empathy because it means that you are able to imagine yourself as somebody else, and this came into discussion and I thought about this when refugees came to Europe and many people lacked empathy, that is many people lacked to imagine what it is like to be refugee. And many Europeans who have never experienced war in that way had the least empathy for the refugees because they have no sense of what it means, they have no personal narrative of that experience. And you can say that is selfish or otherwise, but on the other hand I think all of this is part of the social context, it is not individual. You as an individual are making choices based on the environment around you. People around you trigger empathy or trigger hatred, and then they can make it socially acceptable. And that is the other thing which becomes problem. In certain societies you establish taboos of topic where you cannot say the refugees are dirty Muslims bastards who don’t need to get anything. And they are taboos that are established and they are helpful because they set boundaries in our behavior. You might think in your head but you shouldn’t let this out of your head. That endangers others.
Germany is a prefect example of this. There are of course Germans who have extreme right and fascist views but there are very strong social taboos on these fascist views. These kind of social taboos are less strong in Austria fro example and again less strong in Croatia.
So it matters what the state says. It matters what the society around you says, what taboos and social consensus exists. And seems that in the last few years in many European countries these taboos eroded. I don’t necessarily think that people changed their views or that they became more right wing, or they have changed their views, but these destructive views have taken more space of the social arena. And that is something that we have to be concerned with.
Naum Panovski: All this is, as well, very clearly visible in Macedonia: the revival of history, the sidetracking of reality and replacing it with fictive reality and phantasms. That kind of social and political environment on my opinion is very much a daily life of Macedonian citizens under Gruevski’s regime and his gang. How do you see Macedonia’s reality today?
Florian Bieber: I think Macedonia is a prefect example of a system of rule which we see not just in Macedonia but in many countries around the region. That system essentially is based on informal control and rule of the state by a small group of people hidden behind a party structure. And that informal control is for two purposes: either for personal gain and enrichment or for power. That is the goal. Everything else is decoration.
Naum Panovski: We are talking here about the megalomaniac Baroque decoration?
Florian Bieber: Of course. In that sense I think the whole Skopje 2014 project, the whole antiquation of Macedonia is beautiful examples for such a façade… and we all know, if we knock on them, we can notice that most if it is just plaster. And of course that is what the monuments and buildings are, they are just a stage. They decorate the stage to distract the people from the actual purpose presenting different reality so they can achieve their purpose, which is power and money, personal enrichment. The ways the regimes do this, their mechanisms, are different. But in Macedonia the government engaged in this elaborate performance which distracted from needed reforms and democratic rule. And of course they use word reform and they all talk of EU integration and it is just a façade to do something else. In this sense, there is the façade of reform and the façade of Skopje 2014, both cover up them authoritarian kleptocracy. They are all mouthful of Europe while they produce disaster after disaster in reality. Paradoxically you can be dictator in Balkans today and also being verbally pro European.
Naum Panovski: Well, are we talking here of high-level hypocrisy, and abuse of power.
Florian Bieber: Yes you can say that!
Naum Panovski: Recently you wrote ten rules of a Balkan Prince which are practiced by todays Machiavelli. In that, I would say very ironic and cynical “manifesto for a dictator”, you have laid out, not only the sordid nationalistic, and xenophobic reality on the Balkans, but the mechanisms of destruction of everything which was once ethic, civil, democratic, and liberal.
Do you think that the Balkan dictators with their limited intellectual capacity can take it as a real guide how to rule and remain in power?
Florian Bieber: Ha, ha, ha, I think they have been doing it for quite while. And they have it done before I wrote it. I am afraid that I can’t take any credit for that. Well I think that they all are intelligent, but they are not coincidence of history. If you reduce it to individual, psychoanalyzing the individual, you can analyze Vucic, you can analyze Djukanovic, you can analyze Gruevski, and they all have their pathologies, but it ignores the fact that they are systemic. They don’t come to power by coincidence, but there was certain precondition, which allowed them to come to power. So the question is why would you have people who have either Napoleon complex, or other pathological flaws to come to power? I think what they show us is the failure of transformation process from the old social and political structure to democracy. If you look at many people in Macedonia who don’t like Skopje 2014, but they are in the opposition, but rather they say, “At least they did something” “At least he built something”. Of course that is nonsense, but that shows you that it filled the void which was perceived by people. They copy-paste the language of reform from before them, but on the other hand they gave the people something grandiose which had a different purpose… they filled this void “we are doing something.” In Serbia they called it “Beograd na Vodi” in Macedonia it is “Skopje 2014”. They are stealing, they are corrupt, but there is still this idea of “at least they are building something.” And that is a visible representation of state and its power. And that is what they are selling: We are powerful.
Naum Panovski: Well, I will just add few little things to this glorious distortion and abuse of power done by the Balkan Princes. As we know, Machiavelli in his well know treatise advises the rulers that in any political battle “the means justify the ends.” However, he also points out and makes reference, that his credo “the means justify the ends” applies only when the Prince is fighting on behalf of the state, not on his personal behalf and not for personal gain. Balkan greedy and abusive, undereducated politicians, seems to me, have distorted this idea to the upmost and turned out to identify themselves with the state. Their personal well being is traded for the well being of the state. “Oh, the past gives us right to do this” these ignorants say. That attitude of course has left behind a lot of damage to the state. In that sense their most visible sign of the destructive postmodern transfiguration of the Balkan landscape obviously is the kitch project Skopje 2014. And that is not only reconstruction of reality, it is remodeling reconstruction of the identity, not only a national but urban identity as well. And that issue is not only aesthetic, ethnic or ethic, but that is also I would say ideological.
That ideological rape of the urban aesthetics of the city, has transformed the capital of Macedonia into a place celebrating a fake line of national link to the ancient Macedonians.
And in that way they have destroyed the very fabric of a certain ethnic group and its certain cultural environment at large.
As a response to tat rape we have today the colorful revolution on the Macedonian streets throwing pant on this fake symbols, on the distortion of identity and demanding change, freedom, and democracy? What is you perspective on this struggle today? How long this protest can last?
Florian Bieber: I am glad to see that finally all these monuments have become a target. Always when I have visited there I was provoked and irritated by them. They are not just kitschy, they are not only ugly, they are not only wasteful, there are also a visual representation of corruption, abuse of power, terrible taste and all of that. But they are also promoting lies, they are promoting false view of history, a manipulated view of history, they are divisive, and they are deliberately divisive, not only between Macedonians and Albanians, but also among Macedonians. They deliberately try to interpret and impose one view of the past which is not universally accepted, with the goal to marginalize the other. It is in a multiple ways aggressive and intrusive setting not only in the space but in the ideas. And that’s why they have come an appropriate target of the colorful revolution. And in the way it is targeted, it is in way keeping it by mocking them in making them colorful, like pop art. Coloring the monuments reveals them for what they are, not masterpiece of a monumental past, but trash that improves in meaning through color, bringing it from the imaginary past into the present. Thus the color-bombing of the monuments and facades is a sophisticated form irony and culture that the regime obviously doesn’t have.
Naum Panovski: Not only that the regime does not have it, I would say it doesn’t understand it. I think we are talking here of two opposite cultures: a turbo folk, rural one, closed and intolerant on one hand, and urban and open to the world on the other. We can clearly recognize that in the demands as outlined by the “colorful revolution”. Among other things in their demands for change, they have asked for the president to step down, for total withdrawal of his pardon/abolition, respect for the rule of law and the SJO, new transitional expert government.
On the other side of the street the four political parties are not working at all in a transparent process of negotiation among themselves. What do they negotiate on behind closed doors? On whose behalf? How do we act in this confusion of hidden information and passive opposition coalition. How do we deal with this kind of situation paved by hypocrisy?
Florian Bieber: This is a point, I have been criticizing in the opposition approach since last year. First this was the main strategic mistake of the opposition parties, mostly of the SDSM, who failed to reached out enough to non party structures, the civil society. They have been somehow kind of forced to do that, but it has never been their initiative. They never built a broad coalition. If you are serious of getting rid of regime which is really not democratic, which is authoritarian, and then the only way to do it, is to build a broad coalition. The lesson of Milosevic’s Serbia of 2000’ and his overthrow, has to be learned. If we want to remove a regime we have to have broad coalition of civil society, not just of one party. The other problem has been the EU, which has viewed the crisis as a conflict between the opposition and the government, that has to be resolved through negotiations. Of course that is absurd, because the crisis is not between opposition and government, but it is about the lack of democracy and rule of law, and the rest of the oppressed society.
Naum Panovski: Well what is your comment then on the colorful revolution’s’ request for establishing expert government, which is non-party and above party dominance and inclusion? Do you think that that can be a right and productive solution at his moment? What is a good solution for a peaceful resolution and way out of the crisis in Macedonia?
Florian Bieber: I think that that the role of the colorful revolution and its activists are very important. What I learned from the earlier protests, particularly from the protests in Serbia in 1990’s , is that at the beginning the protesters had a wrong demands. At first, they were demanding that the head of the TV had to resign, then the minister of interior haD to resign, but of course it did not matter…. if Milosevic is in power it does not matter.. because he had everything under his control. This lesson also applies to Macedonia as well… the bars should be raised high and the demands should be the top of the government to resign. So the current government should first resign and the legal process should be completed.
As of the expert government, again, it depends on who is in control and it is difficult to have an independent expert government in such a polarized environment. The suggestion that experts are just professionals is not realistic. Of course, a government of non-party experts can help to reduce the tensions and pave the way for a transition, but I would be careful not to pin too many hopes on such a government
Naum Panovski: Recently we have seen massive protest by the Macedonian Albanians extremely well organized and lead by newly formed party Besa. There were almost 15000 people which is figure which should not be underestimated. They have also publicly expressed their discontent with the current Albanian parties working in coalition with Macedonian parties in ones in Government. However their protest was not colorful at all, but dominated by one color only, that is it was significantly marked by Albanian ethnic color.
However, as a result of that protest, I don’t see them as a part of the civil society.
At the same time some Albanian intellectuals say it is time to consider redesigning the ethnic and governing balance of the state, that revision of social and political contract, which in fact a push for turning Macedonia into a federation. Where does this kind of unilateral protest, division and exclusive demands take us?
Florian Bieber: The best strategy for a regime to stay in power is to keep the opposition divided. The best way to divide the opposition in any country which is multi ethnic, multi national is to divide it along ethnic lines. This happened in Bosnia during the 2014 protests and more broadly, this is how it works in the Balkans for the last 30 years. And as long the opposition and the ethnic groups are not together there is no change. Period. And if you are a smart authoritarian ruler, you know that you need to divide the country, and you want to make sure that you get to fight on your terms, your terms are national ethnic religious terms, and if the others play along your way, and you won half of the battle.
In Macedonia of course the best thing which could happen to Gruevski is to be confronted with separate Macedonian and Albanian protests, and they have different goals, and in fact Macedonians get scared by Albanians and Albanians get scared by Macedonians, and then of course who wins? the regime. And that is the status quo, there is no change. In that sense no matter the content, any regime can survive.
Naum Panovski: I agree with you on that issue. Divide et impera is modus operandi in the Balkans. But in this case I would like to point out that we may agree with the newly formed Albanian party and with some Albanian intellectuals that there is a need for revision of social and political contract Macedonia. The question is on what grounds? I believe we are just on two opposite sides of the river. Their request seems to be ethnically exclusive. They demand rights only for Albanians and their platform seem to be very nationalistic. I believe that A new political and social/societal contract is possible only if the there is no any party which is organized along the ethnic or religious lines. But only on the principles of civil society and include ethnic mix of citizens who live in Macedonia. That is, parties which advocate the right of citizens and their communal needs, and not national or ethnic phantasms!
Florian Bieber: A social contract inherently is social, not ethnic. Of course, the Gruevski regime has made a mockery of the Ohrid Framework Agreement (OFA), by transforming it from a viable peace plan to a tool to buy off the Albanian partners and imposed a mononational nationalist narrative on the public space. In this sense, post-Gruevski Macedonia needs to reestablish the equilibrium and bring all citizens back to feel like Macedonia is their state, which includes, but isn’t limited, to Albanians. The failure of Macedonia over the past decade was democratic, not ethnic, thus the social contract would need to be focused on making Macedonia a more inclusionary state in terms of reducing the power of parties and informal power structures in favor of democracy. The failure is thus not with the OFA and there is no reason to open this question and no ethnic re-arrangement could address the challenges Macedonia has now. I would argue that Albanian parties which now make this argument are expressing the same alienation from the Macedonian state that many Macedonians experience, just that the language and means of expressing it looks different. None of this means that there shouldn’t be an honest assessment of OFA at some point in the future, yet, it seems to be time to focus on a function democracy and institutions which in turn will bring OFA back to life.
Naum Panovski: EU was in the past several years and more engaged in a very direct way in Macedonia. However, Macedonia is a prime example of the consequences of EU sporadic and inconsistent attention. What is needed, how to make EU influence, their European vision work in Macedonia? how to make EU vision of united and democratic, civil free EU work in Macedonia on behalf of Macedonian citizens.
Florian Bieber: First of all the weakness of the EU weakness is always projected particularly well in its foreign policy. We see this in Macedonia as well, the fact that Germany named a special envoy to Macedonia, a German diplomat to be a German special envoy in Macedonian crisis I think speaks volumes about EU. The idea that members of EU, that includes Germany as well, name a special envoy was unthinkable not long ago. Three or four years ago Germany would have lobbied that EU should send a special envoy to deal with the problem. Now the situation has changed. Germany even does not bother, it goes directly and sends its own diplomats to deal with it. That really shows you the weaknesses of EU. That is one of the structural problems. The second one is of course the leverage problem. What can EU offer Macedonia?
Naum Panovski: Or what can Macedonia offer to EU?
Florian Bieber: Oh, well, you know, it is offering to Austria to be a border guard outside at the border of the EU. This is of course I think one of the dangers when geopolitics dominates the values, then the dictator can do the job just as well as a democrat, maybe even better.
Naum Panovski: You have touched upon one very sensitive issue. that is the border for Austria, but border to protect what? To protect the corrupt deals that some of its citizens have in the gambling industry in Macedonia, or to protect them form the massive influx of refugees?
Florian Bieber: Currently the refugee crises has reignited the idea of geopolitics and of big geopolitic thinking in Europe, which was very much not a part of European thinking. Now you have Austria building alliance with Balkan countries to stop refugees coming in, pretending to do what Germany is doing on larger scale with Turkey. It is a bad copy of a larger deal by making a deal with a dictator. So you have this idea of stopping European problems at its borders and making a deal with who ever is in power, as long as they are reliable partners.
Naum Panovski: But the Macedonian government is not reliable partners we have seen so far.
Florian Bieber: Of course it is not. However, they might deliver on short term goals of Austrian or broader EU policy, which is helping to end the influx of refugees. While Turkey is incompatibly bigger and has more resources and thus can disregard EU demands, Macedonia is also less able to act independently. So yes, authoritarian governments are terrible at delivering in the medium and long run, they are have instability built into them and are not based on certain shared norms, but on regime survival. Yet, in the current crisis mode of the EU, the short term might trump long term considerations.
Naum Panovski: But if look for example at the recent outcome of presidential elections in Austria, with a very small margin of votes for the newly elected president, can we say that there is a value crisis and identity crisis in EU? What do you think, what is the message that Austrian citizens have send to Europe and consequently to Macedonia?
Florian Bieber: There is a paradox here. The paradox is that the two countries which have been the most strongly advocating and care the most about Macedonia are Austria and Germany. They have been most engaged and there is hardly another EU country more in favor of the enlargement than these two countries.
But public opinion is against enlargement it in both countries. And in Austria more so than in Germany. So the foreign ministry in Austria will tell you they are willing to pursue enlargement despite popular opposition, for it is strategic commitment we want EU integration of the Western Balkans. But this commitment is not written in stone. So 48.7% of the Austrians voted for the candidate from extreme right . The fact that nearly almost a half of all Austrian voters support candidate who says that Republika Srpska should have the right of self determination, who said Kosovo should not be independent, who sounds like Tomislav Nikolic on Balkan politics, who does not want enlargement, because it is not popular, is very scary thing. Even the far right did not win the presidential elections, they still have a good chance to enter government in two year and then Austrian policy may change, and we may hear: yes Macedonia may be the guardian of the border but not inside of the border as a EU member, but outside of the border as it is now. They can be a guardian and “antemurale christianitatis”—an Christian defense wall—but you are not in, you are out.