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Friday 27 November 2020

30 years on: The end of the road for ex-Communist elites in South East Europe?

This SEESOX webinar took place on the evening of 25 November. The speakers were Eli Gateva (Department of Politics and International Relations, University of Oxford); Mihail Chiru (Oxford School of Global and Area Studies); and Milos Damnjanovic (freelance political analyst). Jonathan Scheele (SEESOX) chaired.

  Eli Gateva covered Bulgaria. The next Parliamentary elections were due in March 2021 (though this might be delayed until May for pandemic-related reasons). The democratic transition in Bulgaria had started in November 1989, following an internal coup in the Bulgarian Communist Party which led to the ousting of Todor Zhivkov. In contrast to Central European countries, the dissent movement in Bulgaria was relatively weak. The Union of Democratic Forces  (SDS) won 36% of the vote in the first democratic elections.  The successors to the Communist Party were the Bulgarian Socialists; and there was a two-party system along the lines of ex-Communists vs non-Communists. In 2001 there was a new party , the National Movement Simeon the Second party (NDSV) ,based around the former King, and later other new parties. The centre-right Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria, GERB, was established in 2006. It had won the 2009 Parliamentary elections, and had been in power since (with a brief interruption in 2013). Currently Borissov was in his third term as PM.  Characteristics of the Bulgarian state were: weak state capacity, patronage, informal networks, the nexus of political and economic elites, and corruption . In the summer of 2020 an MP from Democratic Bulgaria, Hristo Ivanov, tried to disembark on an illegally enclosed beach on the sea near Burgas and was prevented from swimming by bodyguards of the elite. This had galvanised protests and popular support for the rule of law. New parties had appeared: eg There Are Such People, Stand.UpBG, and Bulgarian Summer. There was still sharp focus on high level corruption and governmental weaknesses exposed by the pandemic. The outlook was volatile and uncertain.

Mihail Chiru focussed on Romania. There were two successor parties to the Communists: Social Democrats (PSD) and Democrats (PD), who later merged with the Liberals and who were currently governing Romania. The former won in 2016 by a landslide; but their repeated attempts to weaken the anti-corruption fight (using a tactic known as anti -anti- corruption) led to massive protests, heavy losses in the  EP elections and departure from government in 2019. The new party leadership demonstrated some distancing from the anti -anti- corruption fight and got rid of some particularly unpopular politicians; but was unable to capitalise on the government’s poor performance on COVID-19. Meanwhile the party founded on the coattails of the anti-corruption movement, USR-PLUS,  suffered from shallow organisation and intra-party conflict. The government’s plans to privatise health care, cut public sector jobs and perhaps introduce austerity measures would help the chances of a PSD comeback. The PSD itself was unlikely to reform: there was no real challenge on the left, and a captive electorate.

Milos Damnjanovic addressed Serbia and Montenegro. They had a similar transition from Communism: the Serbian Communists rebranded as Socialists and still led by Milosevic, the Montenegrin Communists as the Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS). In both  countries elite continuity was retained (unlike in Croatia and BiH where the more nationalist opposition to Communism came to the fore.) The main difference was generational : the Serbian leadership was greying, the Montenegrin youthful. From there the paths diverged further. The DPS split in 1997, when Bulatovic lost a power struggle to Djukanovic and formed the Socialist People’s Party. The split led to ideological cleavages, with the DPS becoming more anti-Milosevic and anti- Serbian. The DPS lost power to a coalition in 2020, while Bulatovic’s party had all but disappeared. What would happen next was the Big Unknown. The opposition had the opportunity to remake the country, but there had been much bickering over Ministerial positions. They might last for a year, but the DPS might use that time to recover coherence. In Serbia the former Communists reigned supreme into the 1990s. After local elections in 1996, the opposition took power, but pulled its punches and the key moment of change was delayed until 2000, when a more western, pro-EU elite took over. But its support frayed in 2008 over the Kosovo issue. The new Serbian Progressive Party under Vucic came to power. Vucic set about concentrating power in his own hands, and destroying opposition (now atomised fragments). He viewed democratic institutions as a necessary evil: the façade should be preserved but effectively hollowed out. 

The Q&A session looked at the comparisons and contrasts between the countries which had been examined; the differences between forming new parties and re-shaping old ones; the differences between Bulgaria/Romania and the Western Balkans; and the connections (if any) with Hungary and Poland.

In conclusion, the Chair drew attention to SEESOX’s planned seminar series in the Hilary Term, which would take a close look at the politics of the region.

David Madden (Chair SEESOX Steering Committee, Distinguished Friend of St Antony's)

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