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Monday 29 January 2018

Hunger and Fury: The Crisis of Democracy in the Balkans

On 24 January 2018, SEESOX hosted Jasmin Mujanović (EastWest Institute), who came to present his new book Hunger and Fury: The Crisis of Democracy in the Balkans. Danijela Dolenec (University of Zagreb) acted as discussant, while the seminar was chaired by Adis Merdzanovic (St Antony’s College, Oxford).

Mujanović started his presentation by outlining the major themes of the book. As he explained, the process of democratisation never truly began in the Balkans, even though particularly Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo had been poster children for top-down state building. His book, therefore, is a critical intervention on what needs to happen for true democratisation to start. It centres on two arguments. The first one concerns the nature of democracy, which cannot be reduced to mere institutions and practices, but needs to be understood as a generational project that necessarily includes a bottom-up, citizen-activist component. As Mujanović said, it’s a process that includes both the ballot box and the public square.

The second argument centres on the question why the quality of “democracy” in the region is so poor, and, in fact, has been steadily declining for the past decade. How was that possible? According to Mujanović, one of the central parts of the explanation concerns agency, particularly the agency of local elites. In a process that he termed “elastic authoritarianism”, ideological movements and foreign empires have come and gone in the region, but the elite structures remained largely unchanged. The elites were capable of transforming their ideologies because they were so good in understanding when hegemonic orders are falling apart. Understanding how they did it and what consequences their strategies had are thus very important for a future push towards the successful establishment of a democratic regime that truly includes the demos, the people.

With respect to the future, Mujanović outlined two possible scenarios: the first, pessimistic one concerns a possible marriage between the local authoritarian tendencies with new, similarly authoritarian international patrons, particularly in Russia, China, Turkey, or the Gulf states. The second, optimistic scenario may be found in a different kind of politics, which Mujanović sees emerging in the region. Recent public protests and demands for reform, elite and regime changes in Slovenia, Macedonia and Bosnia and Herzegovina have made clear that there is a bottom-up, activist surge happening at the moment. Its goal is to make democracy, as the rule of the demos, a reality in the region. Citizens seek to transform the polis through an antagonistic, popular opposition to the current elites. While Mujanović, therefore, sees reasons to be cautiously optimistic with respect to the future of the region, he emphasised that this as well was a generational project.

In her discussion, Danijela Dolenec raised some important objections to Mujanović’s arguments, which she subsequently published in a proper book review. Firstly, she questioned the scope of the argument, as the book seemingly uses terms such as “Balkans”, “Western Balkans”, and “the former Yugoslav region” interchangeably, while particularly the positive scenario concentrates on singular cases such as Macedonia and Bosnia and Herzegovina. Secondly, she asked whether there is a significant difference between the concept of “elastic authoritarianism” and “competitive authoritarianism”, as described by Levitsky and Way. Thirdly, she picked up on Mujanović recommendation for a more robust and better targeted engagement by the international community, particularly the EU and the US and asked whether this would not undermine the advocated need for more local agency in the process of democratisation.

In his responses, Mujanović explained that one of the major goals of the book was to make the stakes clear in the Western Balkans and that true democratisation in the sense of involving the people needs to form part of any strategy that deals with the region. He remains convinced that the term “elastic authoritarianism” makes sense of the particular trajectory of regional elites and serves to highlight the notion of historical learning.

As the ensuing discussion with the audience showed, the Western Balkans region remains a very contested topic well worth analysing and debating. Mujanović’s book provides a very important insight in this debate with many thought-provoking theses and recommendations for international engagement that should be taken seriously. An undemocratic, increasingly illiberal and authoritarian Western Balkans will not only be a problem for the people living there, but for all of us. For what happens in the Western Balkans will hardly stay in the Western Balkans.

Adis Merdzanovic (St Antony’s College, Oxford)

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