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Talking Policy: Jasmin Mujanovic on Democracy in the Western Balkans

The Western Balkans are no stranger to conflict. Successor states to the former Yugoslavia fought a series of nationalist wars that spanned the 1990s, and today the region (which typically includes Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Kosovo, Macedonia, Albania, and EU members Croatia and Slovenia) is seeing renewed unrest. The 2012 Maribor protests in Slovenia and the Macedonian protests in 2017 have been followed in 2018 by the assassination of Serb opposition figure Oliver Ivanovic, Croatia’s decision to cut short a diplomatic visit to Serbia, and demonstrations against gang violence in Montenegro. World Policy Journal spoke with Jasmin Mujanovic, a fellow at the East West Institute, a policy consultant at the Freidrich Elbert Foundation, and the author of Hunger and Fury: The Crisis of Democracy in the Balkans, about roadblocks to democracy in the Western Balkans and the weakening influence of the West in the region.

WORLD POLICY JOURNAL: Could you provide an overview of the state of democracy in the Western Balkans?

JASMIN MUJANOVIC: The state of democracy in the Western Balkans is rough. It is in decline. It is arguably even coming apart. We can see this in a number of ways and by a number of metrics. It doesn’t matter all that much whether we are talking about the states that are formally part of the EU, like Slovenia or Croatia, or about the aspirant countries like Serbia—either way we see a decline. We see it in the frequency of physical violence in parliaments. We see it in what are described as anti-system protests, which started in 2012 in Slovenia, and continue across the region to this day. We see it in various indices of press freedom, corruption, transparency, and government accountability. By any metric you want to use, the quality of democracy in the region is low, and it is in decline. What is striking about that is that arguably no other region in the world has been exposed to as much outside state building and top-down international pressure as the Western Balkans. It’s still being called the laboratory of internationally led democratization. This was supposed to be the success story. And yet, nearly three decades after the Yugoslav Wars, we are on the precipice of a genuine crisis of democracy, and crisis of politics.

WPJ: What have been the roadblocks to democratization in these countries?

JM: I think the biggest factor is the lack of elite transition in a lot of these countries, as well as the lack of popular participation in politics. There are elites across the region who have been in power for generations—people who were one time avowed Marxists and communists, then transformed overnight into imperial fascists, and then again transformed overnight into Europeanist pacifists or whatever else was necessary. Many of them are now preparing for a third or fourth mutation as Western influence weighs on the region. I refer to this as elastic authoritarianism, the way in which the ideological edifice of the state continues to change—not just in the last 25 or 30 years, but over the better part of the last century—while socio-economic positions and political conditions remain static. The only way these kinds of politics can be confronted or changed, as we’ve seen in other parts of the world, is by a greater degree of popular participation—not just at the ballot box, but also through acts of civil disobedience, through protest, through social mobilization. That is something we have not seen in the Balkans. The idea of social opposition, social mobilization, grass-root mobilization, and civil society opposition doesn’t have a long history in this region; it’s something we’ve been able to talk about only within the last decade.

WPJ: Looking at this protest and opposition, you’ve argued that we may be seeing a turning point for genuine democratization. Can you tell me more about that?

JM: What we have seen in happen Macedonia over the last year or two, I think, is a good indicator of what I’m talking about. There’s an entrenched authoritarian regime that refuses to play by the constitutional rules; they engage in all kinds of vulgar manipulations and attack the rights of citizens in a free society. There is wiretapping, police harassment, etc. You get to a point where there is so much popular discontent with the regime that people take to the streets. They are prepared to confront the regime. They no longer trust the performance of elections. So they go to the streets for an existential confrontation with the regime, and that precipitates a crisis of legitimacy which, with sustained civic mobilization and citizen pressure, leads to a moment of rupture. In Macedonia, an important thing is that the opposition party—which itself is implicated in corruption scandals and very much has an authoritarian streak—finally begins to realize that if it ever wants to hold power again, it has to get on board with this popular discontent. So the party has to become democratized through these protests. Young people start to join the party, activists start to join the party. A real mechanism is created to translate anger in the street into institutional change. Eventually there is international mediation and elections where the opposition party wins and forces the government to concede power. After sustained popular pressure through a combination of international and domestic opposition to the regime, and the government gives up power, there’s finally a moment of rupture and a moment of transformation. That is the role these systems can play in these regimes. It can really only happen with mass mobilizations, when there is popular recognition that the status quo can no longer continue. But this change obviously is very tricky and requires a tremendous amount of pressure. Unfortunately, oftentimes it seems to take a single crystallizing issue to get people to go out on the streets and stay there.

WPJ: You describe these activists and organizations as leading the way. In what areas can they generate the most political change?

JM: It varies. That’s sort of the irony. The Western Balkans have had established “professional NGOs” for decades now, and they’ve done valuable work. In particular, for people in various marginalized communities, such as LGBT people or the Roma, basic social services have come from foreign-funded NGOs. But the real issue is that things have become so bad in the Western Balkans that we need to see more autonomous, grass-roots, “uncivil” society. We need to get to the point where people’s disillusionment and anger is translated into mobilization, and it’s very difficult to accomplish that with foreign-backed NGOs. We don’t want to move toward a crash regime change model. I do think there needs to be some interplay between professional NGOs and sustained civil society, but the actual impetus for change and mobilization has to come from a genuine, local, grass-roots push for change. When that moment crystallizes, professional NGOs, political organizers, and activists of various sorts can help give those protests structure, create movements, and channel that frustration into politically effective and relevant actions, but they themselves can’t author the protests.

WPJ: To reshape the question, what issues can grass-root organizations focus on to create political change from a local perspective?  

JM: Corruption, and the ways we can see corruption manifested. It’s a bit of a catch-all term, but we’re talking about clientelism, cronyism, and all the ways that the everyday experience of authoritarianism profoundly affects people’s lives and work. This includes the daily humiliations that all citizens experience, unless they are from the chosen caste of the politically well-connected. If you’re going to the hospital, taking your kid to the doctor, going to the municipality to get a form, or going shopping, you can see corruption play out in all kinds of interesting and disturbing ways. So as an issue it’s really powerful and emotional, and allows the potential for organization. A lot of the work that can and should be done by grass-root organizations is to crystallize the effects of corruption, putting it into a coherent narrative and helping people identify the parties responsible. This has happened in Serbia, Slovenia, and Bosnia. Ultimately, it is the one issue that gets to the heart of a lot of the problems in the region.

WPJ: We’re seeing a rise of nationalist groups around the world. Is the Western Balkans experiencing a similar trend?

JM: If the Western Balkans are known for anything to the international audience, unfortunately, they’re known for nationalism. I think it’s a bit of a caricature, though, and we have to understand the purpose of nationalism in the Balkans. It is, to my mind, a top-down, engineered politics, and it serves the function of insulating elites, especially in moments of regime crisis, from meaningful demands for social change. Insomuch as we’re seeing a resurgence of nationalism in the Balkans, I think on the one hand it actually has to do with the wave of protests we’ve begun seeing since 2012. And on the other hand, it has to do with the worldwide crisis of liberalism. Elites in the Balkans are looking at the election of Donald Trump and the Brexit referendum. They are concluding that this is the twilight of the West, that the most powerful architects of the postwar order in the Balkans are checking out—that these countries are being consumed with their own internal crises and deciding to pivot. There’s simultaneously a growing social domestic discontent, so countries in the Balkans are once again, more and more overtly, flirting with nationalist themes, ideas of partition, territorial skirmishes, etc. They’re also looking for new benefactors. They’re looking to new international actors who are willing to sponsor the nationalist ploys that will allow the current leaders to remain in power. So they’re reaching out to Russia, Turkey, China, the Gulf states, and other regimes that will look favorably upon authoritarian or sectarian regimes, unlike—traditionally, at least—the Western states.

WPJ: Croatia is the only Western Balkan state that’s a member of the European Union, and Montenegro joined NATO just last year. Serbia is also looking to join the EU. At the same time Russia has been invested in maintaining relationships with the Balkan states. How do you expect the international community at large to respond to the current situation in the region?

JM: We’ve reached a point where similar things are happening in the Balkans and the international community more broadly. They just may be more vulgar and acute in the Balkans because of the historical and social context. But the stability and integrity of the democratic project in the Balkans is profoundly related to the integrity, health, and vitality of the Western and international democratic project. That’s certainly the sense in places like Russia. The reason the Russians are interested in the Balkans is not that there is a meaningful historical relationship between the Balkans and Russia. That’s mostly propaganda and mythology. The reason Russia is interested in the Balkans is that they understand this is a strategically vulnerable area where the weakness of local governance and democracy makes it a cheap and fertile place to create problems for the international community, primarily the United States and the European Union. I think that understanding those crises as being part of one phenomenon actually gives us the tools and the narrative framework to reassess and reboot the process of engagement in the region. We need to be concerned about Russia’s growing influence in the Balkans. We need to be concerned about the resurgence of the far right in Croatia. We need to be concerned about these societies becoming a black hole for money laundering, organized crime, and extremist groups. Because what happens in these societies is no longer an isolated issue. It directly affects the the international community; we are all in it together. That being the case, we need to still do the political legwork to ensure that there is a real, meaningful sense of shared democratic stability and accountability in Europe.

WPJ: What would that legwork look like?

JM: That’s the million-dollar question. I think we have to start with small steps and build on them. One of the things I’ve been pushing hard for is making sure that law enforcement agencies and networks in Europe and the United States are better plugged in with law enforcement in the region. It’s also something that will ingratiate the West and the international community in the minds of Balkan citizens who, in some ways, are quite disillusioned with the rest of the world. Focusing on organized crime, corruption, gray markets, black markets, and money laundering, and beginning to help local citizens dismantle these criminal and political networks, goes a long way to restore trust, accountability, and transparency in government. It also directly translates to security issues; many of the security issues facing the West are directly tied to the Balkans. There are some black-and-white ways in which the collapse of accountable governance and democratization in the Western Balkans has begun to significantly undermine the stability of the international community. So going after those low hanging fruit is where this process has to begin.

WPJ: Going back to the local roots of these problems, what ethnic tensions are at play in local organizations and movements?

JM: In some ways it’s the elephant in the room, especially when you’re talking about Bosnia and Kosovo, which were most directly affected by war, genocide, and ethnic cleansing. When you still have these deeply fragmented and deeply traumatized communities, it’s obviously a significant political factor. But it’s a factor that’s often greatly overstated. Ethnic and nationalist politics are manufactured and remanufactured everyday by the tabloids and the state media because they understand that as long as citizens are afraid of and angry at each other, it keeps the elites in power. At the same time, the degree of ethnic acrimony between these various communities is not insignificant. But even in communities that were incredibly hard hit by conflict, people who experienced violence show a remarkable willingness and capacity to associate with one another. And I think that’s why it’s important to invest in meaningful democratization—it’s the only system where we can allow people to have the space and opportunity for contestation without that leading to violence. With any deterioration in democratic quality, any shift toward authoritarianism, I think the end result will ultimately be a return to sectarian politics and, very possibly, conflict.

WPJ: On that note, what are the prospects for democracy moving forward?

JM: I do think I’m an optimist. At the very least, I put a lot of stock in the possibility for social transformation coming on the back of social mobilization and protest. I think the region has a genuine shot at rebooting the democratic project on its own terms. At times that will be messy and acrimonious. It may have the appearance of chaos, but some of the chaos is necessary for ordinary citizens to recognize their own power and the dignity they have been denied. At the same time, I think we have to be realistic and sober about other countries like Russia, China, Turkey, and the U.K. and the U.S. apparently abandoning the promises of liberalism and democracy. If we wash our hands of the idea of democracy, the idea of civil society, and the idea of government of the people and by the people in the Balkans, then the cost of abandoning our commitment to those values will be far worse than people appreciate. The Balkans will not simply stay quietly authoritarian. We will be on a very short countdown clock, moving toward a new conflict.

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This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

[Interview conducted by Helena Ong]

[Photo courtesy of Jasmin Mujanovic]

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