Total Pageviews

Monday, 25 January 2021

Democracy in South East Europe: Backsliding or new normal?

On 20 January, SEESOX hosted the first in its Hilary Term 2021 Seminar Series on The quality of democracy in South Eastern Europe. The opening webinar, on “Democracy in South East Europe: Backsliding or new normal?” brought together Milada Anna Vachudova (University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill), Damir Kapidzic (University of Sarajevo) and Dimitar Bechev (DPIR, Oxford; Russia Institute, King’s College, London), with Othon Anastasakis in the chair.

Vachudova began by identifying the varieties of populism. While all populists ground their appeals in the opposition between “people” and “elites”, she saw populism on the economic left as involving an inclusionary conception of the people, while that on the cultural right was an exclusionary “ethnopopulism”. In the latter case, while the “people” shared some form of common identity (ethnic, cultural, national, religious, or racial), their “enemies” were both domestic and transnational elites. Ethnopopulism legitimizes political power by using intense majoritarianism in defence of the “will of the people”. It differs from ethnic nationalism in its flexibility in identifying any enemies that could help it to gain and consolidate popular support. It exploits “bottom up” discontent at changes in social and economic lived experience, reinforcing this sentiment through the “top-down” creation of “enemies”, and control of the information environment, to polarise society. Vachudova drew on her recent article “Ethnopopulism and Democratic Backsliding” to sketch the many puzzles surrounding the transformation of former democratic frontrunners into illiberal regimes. She explored how the economic success of peaceful transition in Poland and Hungary may have contributed to the election of ethnopopulist governments that instrumentalised conspiracy theories. Ironically, they had recourse to many of the same methods used by their communist predecessors to consolidate their power. Rather than starting out as right-wing extreme parties, they had succeeded in capturing and remodelling mainstream parties. Governments in South Eastern Europe had largely followed the same playbooks, but this is more a story of entrenchment as there were hardly any established liberal democratic institutions or informal norms to erode - unlike in Hungary and Poland. In the main, incumbent parties in SE Europe – many of them ethnopopulist – showed little divergence on economic policies, but stressed issues of cultural identity.

Kapidzic questioned the concept of backsliding in the SE European context since there had been little or no prior consolidation of democracy; he preferred the term “autocratisation”, where some democratic institutions, especially elections, might remain, but were largely side-lined between elections. He pointed out, on the basis of V-dem’s Liberal Democracy Index[1], that there had in fact been a relative stagnation in the region between 2008 and 2019, apart from Serbia, where democracy had declined.

He characterised autocratisation in SE Europe as a creeping phenomenon of growing political illiberalism (“going, going, gone”). Policies were adopted to extend electoral advantage, with the goal of remaining permanently in power. To measure the phenomenon, the principal actors should ideally be identified, but this was not easy, so one had to focus on what he identified as illiberal policies:
  • Media Control - state- or privately-owned - was quick to achieve and easy to operate; while the actual method used varied between countries, the goal was the same – to ensure a media ecosystem that gave special treatment to the governing party over any opposition.
  • On Rule of Law, the key was control of the courts to ensure that they were not fully independent and that they did not offend government and/or high officials, as well as abuse of the legal process against opposition and journalists.
  • Offences against Freedom of Expression and Assembly were multiple in most of the Western Balkans, with the aim of preventing protest.
  • Finally, Misuse of Public Resources occurred through preferential public procurement practices (and packing the boards of state-owned enterprises) to reward chums.
Taken together, these policies amounted to a move away from democracy. But why was this happening? Was there a particular susceptibility in the region?

Bechev saw developments in Serbia as a carbon copy of those in Hungary; boundaries with Central Europe were becoming more blurred. In Hungary, Orban had re-engineered the political system, but strong oppositions nevertheless remained, allowing them to capture local government (Budapest) – perhaps reflecting the longer democratic experience in Central Europe? He saw such developments as impossible in Serbia/Belgrade. Romania and Bulgaria were, in this sense, midway between Central Europe and the Western Balkans; in elections, some progress was perceptible, even if success of protest movements – now political parties – was not total. This was not yet the case in the Western Balkans.

He examined countervailing trends in the Western Balkans. Bottom-up mobilisation could achieve results, but economic structures were still a barrier to change; in contrast to Central Europe, the private sector remained relatively weak in comparison to the state sector. The “Orban franchise” had been exported to Northern Macedonia and Slovenia; authoritarianism seemed to be just as transmissible across borders as liberal practices. He also noted that power sharing coalitions in the Western Balkans were no common practice, requiring each party to play to its respective nationalist gallery in order to maximise its vote; at the same time, this hindered the emergence of a single “strong man”.

In the subsequent rich discussion and Q & A, a number of issues emerged:
  • The seeming inability of most opposition parties to combine their forces to combat creeping authoritarianism, with Poland constituting an exception to this rule. The same was true of bottom-up protest – unity was needed to create the possibility of change (as in Montenegro in 2020).
  • Illiberalism within the EU was used to try to redefine EU policies, and its export to SE Europe influenced options for the latter’s interaction with Brussels. This was complemented by Russian and Chinese moves to support authoritarian practices in the region. Trump’s support for illiberalism had also contributed.
  • Power sharing had a positive impact in constraining the power of a “strong man”, but it also contained power at the subnational level (e.g. Dodik in Republika Serbska), removing constraints on power at the lower level.
  • The rise of opposition mayors in major cities was a positive, but there was still a long way to go to achieve real change. In order to succeed, protest needed to link up with a political party. Navalny’s efforts in Russia showed how valuable it was for protest movements to reach out beyond the major cities.
  • Elections were still winnable; SE Europe was not Turkey or Russia. But opposition weakness remained a problem. And without liberal democracy, elections were not winnable in the absence of a 1989 style protest. There was a distinction to be made between electoral democracy, where there was no media freedom, and true liberal democracy.
  • Parties gained support through different means depending on whether they sought or had achieved power. Once in power, they exploited the classic tools to consolidate their position.
  • While the lack of a liberal democratic legacy from past regimes may have been a factor in making the Western Balkans more susceptible to erosion, the habits of former Yugoslavia, a relatively liberal communist regime, had not been eliminated in the same way as in other more restrictively-run communist countries. At the same time similarities could be discerned between authoritarian tendencies in Central Europe and populist moves in the West (Brexit).
  • As regards external influences, particularly from Russia, the erosion of democracy would probably have happened with or without such influences, although Russian influence certainly helped.
The conclusion drawn by Anastasakis stressed the multiplicity of terms – undemocratic, autocratic, ethnopopulist, etc. There was much work to be done to clarify this whole area. Personally, this author favours the term “autocratisation”.

Jonathan Scheele (SEESOX Associate/Blog Editor)


No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.