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Monday, 14 March 2016

Political legitimacy in crisis: reflections on Romania, Macedonia and Bosnia and Herzegovina

Jonathan Scheele (Senior Member, St Antony's College, Oxford)

The final SEESOX Hilary Term seminar, on 9 March 2016, gave an opportunity for comparison of ongoing political legitimacy crises in three South East European states. Gruia Badescu (St John’s College, Oxford) looked at Romania, Cvete Koneska (Control Risks, London) at Macedonia, and Jessie Hronesova (St Antony’s College, Oxford) at Bosnia-Hercegovina; Robin Smith (New College, Oxford) chaired the seminar.

While there were striking similarities in the three countries, there were also surprising differences. While in all three countries there were major public demonstrations against government and the political elite, the circumstances differed. In Romania, the movement in November 2015 had been triggered by a tragic nightclub fire, killing and injuring over 100 people, mainly due to lax and/or corrupt implementation of safety regulations. But the political class are seen as the problem - no matter the political party, politicians would belong to the same “system”: “we think the same, we feel the same, we steal the same”. Nightly demonstrations by tens of thousands of people - the highest numbers since the 1989 events - led to the resignation of the government and the installation of a technocratic government. In Macedonia the leak of tapped telephone conversations from around 20,000 people (1% of the population!), including the PM and ministers, as well as the opposition, had torn down the screen and revealed what everyone had always believed – that the political elite were crude and corrupt and ignored the Rule of Law. People came out onto the streets to demand that something should be done – but not much has changed. In Bosnia-Hercegovina, street protests have become almost a tradition, escalating into mass street protests in February 2014, but there seems to be little belief that anything can change as a result. And the Dayton constitution acts as something of an additional barrier.
In all three countries, the right of domestic elites to govern is increasingly questioned, and there are occasional calls for technocratic governments. But such a change has only occurred in Romania. While domestic politicians in Macedonia are seen as problem, and not the solution, there seem to be no obvious candidates to develop an apolitical solution in either Macedonia or Bosnia-Hercegovina.

The people who came out on the street were, in each country, not associated with the traditional political elites, nor necessarily with established civil society bodies; thus, while they were effectively new actors on the political scene, their demands were often inchoate and mutually inconsistent, and there was little to maintain their unity – or even their presence in the public space - over the longer term. Even in cases like Romania, where there was a consequent change of government, there is every likelihood of reversion to the rule of the traditional political elites within a short period (November 2016 general elections). 

A common factor in Romania and Macedonia is the growing importance of a trusted institution – in both instances the Anti-Corruption Prosecutor’s Office, though the Macedonian Prosecutor’s status is much shakier than that of her opposite number in Romania. Though an anticorruption institution exists in Bosnia-Hercegovina, it is perceived as captured by the main political parties. The European Union is respected in all three countries and is still seen as among the most trusted institutions – way ahead of most domestic ones, even if behind the church and the army or the police. But its credibility these days as a mediator in domestic battles is severely undermined. “In Macedonia, the EU of 2016 is not the same as the EU of 20001.” Curiously, while in Romania the young favour the EU, many young people in Bosnia-Hercegovina are increasingly sceptical towards the EU, perhaps reflecting their disappointment at its inability to improve the situation – while the old remember the war. 

Civil society in all three countries remains weak and fragmented; in some cases, it was not a leader in the protest movements. In Romania, President Iohannis chose to look beyond the political elites in his consultations regarding a new government, even going so far as to meet the demonstrators in the street and invite some of their representatives, along with more established civil society people, to the consultations. But how far that effect will persist is not clear. And the selection of such representatives was controversial: how far did those invited reflect the complicated canvas of Romanian society?

What is the longer term impact of these protests? Do they allow the governed to perceive their governors as having greater political legitimacy? Almost certainly not. In Romania the debate has now reverted to the traditional groups and politics are still seen as “dirty”; there is some talk of a new party being formed before the next elections in November 2016, but the impact of the protests remains pretty limited. In Macedonia not much has changed, even though everyone accepts that the old equilibrium is no longer tenable; one positive sign however was that the protests transcended ethnic boundaries. In Bosnia-Hercegovina the perceived lack of impact of the protests has strengthened the tendency for people, especially the young, to vote with their feet and exploit their double nationalities to leave the country; will they return?

In conclusion then, our speakers painted a fairly gloomy picture of how difficult it is to achieve change in these countries through extra-parliamentary action, while at the same time the political elites have little or no incentive to support such change.

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