New notes for the Balkan Prince and his opponents

Source: Wikipedia

Source: Wikipedia

Dear Balkan Prince,

you read my previous notes (and you had access to a version in your mother tongue), then you engaged some foreign advisers to make yourself look good internationally and then you hired some domestic advisers to show you how to play dirty. However, you never called and offered me a possibility to provide you with more assistance.

I have thus decided to provide some advice for those who might be seeking to replace you. As I wrote back then, your job is dancing on the edge of a volcano. Good luck to those who seek to replace you and hopefully will not become just another prince:

1. It is difficult. It is harder than challenging classic authoritarian rule. Srdja Popović provides some good and humorous advice on toppling today’s dictators, but much of it does not work in removing the Balkan prince.

2. Getting them caught. The “eleventh” rule for the Balkan prince is “Don’t get caught” (see here) is a key lesson for those seeking to remove them. Much of the mechanisms of staying in power rely on everybody knowing them, suspecting them, but lacking hard evidence beyond personal anecdotes. Hearing your Prince and his aids talking about citizens like cattle, manipulating elections, courts, media and threatening the opposition is potentially destabilizing.

3. The Balkan prince is often quite popular and thrives on mobilizing a supposed “silent majority”. The prince will often use populism to make sure that he has strong backing and he will campaign continuously. To challenge him, you need to show the citizens that he does not have the “silent” majority behind him. Just basing opposition on one group (i.e. students, city dwellers), will not be sufficient to build a strong movement.

4. Reclaiming the public. The Balkan prince will control the media not through direct censorship, but subtle pressure (controlling media through advertisement, targeted pressure). To challenge the prince, you need to create a public sphere, and the internet wont do, as its reach does not get to the citizens who are the most loyal voters.

5. Challenge  external support for the Balkan prince. The power of the Balkan prince rests on external legitimacy. As long as external actors, such as the EU, remain silent or lack a clear language (here and here), the power  of the prince to claim of external legitimacy will help him. In fact, he might use this to discredit the opposition and present himself as the only guarantor of stability and Euro-Atlantic integration.  To challenge the Balkan prince, make sure to secure external backing, but careful to much backing might make you vulnerable to accusations that you are  foreign agent.

6. Offer an alternative. The Balkan prince will be happy with the message that everybody is the same, equally corrupt, power-hungry. As long as citizens believe that there is no fundamental difference, why chose new leaders, they will steal even more than those who already have stolen enough.

7. Don’t accept his terms of the debate. He will seek to convince the public that he is more patriotic than you and more reformist and more European than you. Don’t try to be more patriotic (i.e. nationalist) then him. Change the framework to one you can win (unemployment, poverty).

8. Pick winnable and popular battles. As Srdja Popović notes, it is important to pick a battle (here, and here) with the prince you can win and that can energize the public.

9. Win elections. The only credible place to defeat the Balkan prince is elections. As their rule claims to be democratic, it is difficult to challenge them in social protests alone. Without an electoral challenge, they can wait out protests and win elections. While the prince has made it harder to defeat him, he still has to win them and has limited leeway in manipulating them.

10. Block the ethnic card. Balkan princes will want to play the ethnic card, antagonize and polarize to shift attention away from the real issues. You need to challenge the ethnic card, not trump it. This means building cross ethnic coalitions and recognizing that most citizens don’t are much about ethnicity, given a chance.

To the challengers of the Balkan prince, good luck, and don’t forget to not use the powers you might inherit for your own advantage, they are tempting. If you do, you will become just another Balkan prince.

Negotiating a Way Out of the Macedonian Crisis?

Here is a brief comment I wrote for a Macedonian website on the possibilities of the EU to mediate in the Macedonian crisis:



Nikola Gruevski (Source: EPP)

As the political crisis in Macedonia has escalated in recent weeks, several EU officials, including Commission in charge of enlargement, Johannes Hahn and Federica Mogherini, the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy have urged the government and the opposition to negotiate and suggested the EU as a mediator. Yet, is negotiation the way out of the crisis? While the government has accused the opposition leader Zoran Zaev of espionage and planning a coup, the opposition has realized a number of audio recordings that suggest substantial abuse of office, the control over the judiciary and media and the manipulation of elections by the ruling party. Considering the severity of the allegations, the prospects for a negotiated agreement appear increasingly slim. However, it is less the prospects that should make on weary of mediation. First, the nature of the allegations is not a matter of mediation, but of investigation. If the tape recordings are even only partially correct, they indicate a scale of abuse that is incompatible with a democratic government. In addition, the wire taps effect not only the government and the opposition, but all of society. Thus, reducing a resolution on two parties falls short of including those affected.

Zoran Zaev (Source: FOSM)

Zoran Zaev (Source: FOSM)

Two very different efforts by the EU to mediate in past conflicts in former Yugoslavia come to mind, both 18 years ago. In 1997, the mediation in Serbia between the opposition and government of Slobodan Milošević following protests over massive electoral fraud in local elections. The result was a partial concession by the regime which then continued to rule for another three years and engaged in a horrific war in Kosovo. Nearly at the same time, the EU also mediated after the collapse of the Albanian state following the authoritarian rule of the first Berisha government and the collapse of the pyramid schemes in the country. Here, the goal was a negotiated transfer of power, resulting in a new constitution and elections that led to a change of power. These two cases are instructive. Mediation by the EU should not just aim at resolving the difference, even if this were possible, but at a structural way out. Considering the severity and founded nature of the claim, a negotiated agreement would have to include an independent (not just in name) investigation of the claims and an expert government leading to new elections. With the current government in place, a free and open investigation appears hard to accomplish and even then it will be a challenge considering the evidence of control the ruling party exerts over the state. The EU is faced with two challenges in accomplishing this. First, its leverage is severly restrained. With the Greek veto it has little to offer and credibility in Macedonia. Second, the stakes are high. Either side views the conflict as a zero sum game with little to loose. If the allegations are true, the leadership of the ruling party would end up in jail. Thus, the incentives for any open investigation appear to be limited.

Arsonists and the EU: A European Commissioner on Serbia and Macedonia

In Fire Raisers (Biedermann und die Brandstifter), a classic play by Swiss writer Max Frisch, Herr Biedermann, a wealth producer of hair tonic, and his wife Babette allow the shady character Schmitz  to settle in their attic through a combination of his charm and threats. This happens while there is an arsonist on the loose, setting houses on fire. Babette is suspicious, but Herr Biedermann rejects any suggestion that Schmitz might be an arsonist. Early on, Biedermann asked Schmitz “Please promise me this: You are not really an arsonist.” Schmitz just laughs.

Babette remains nervous and has doubts to which Biedermann replies “for the last time: He is no arsonist.” Upon which a voice, presumably his wife asks: “How do you know?” Biedermann: “I asked him myself… and anyhow: Isn’t one able to think about anything else in this world? It is madding, you and your arsonists all the time.” Later Schmitz is joined by Eisenring who start moving oil drums and fuses to the attic. Biederman remains indignant about any accusation:

“One should not always assume the worst. Where will this lead! I want to have my quiet and peace, nothing else, and what concerns these two gentlemen–asides from all the other worries I have…”

In the end, Biedermann hands the arsonists the matches to set his house on fire. After all, if they were real arsonists, they surely would have matches…

Johannes Hahn and Aleksandar Vučić (source: SETimes)

In recent days, Johannes Hahn, EU commissioner visited Macedonia (together with Kosovo) and spoke on Serbia, addressing two arsonists, who have been playing with democratic principles and media freedom. When asked about declining media freedom in Serbia, Hahn noted  “I have heard this several times [concerns about media freedom] and I am asking always about proof. I am willing to follow up such reproaches, but I need evidence and not only rumours.”

In Skopje, the press release following the visit of Commissioner Hahn noted “the EU’s serious concern at the current political situation and urged political actors to engage in constructive dialogue, within the parliament, focusing on the strategic priorities of the country and all its citizens. All leaders must cooperate in good faith to overcome the current impasse which is not beneficial to the country’s reform efforts.” Of course, the claim of Prime Minister Gruevski that the head of the largest opposition party is guilty of treason and planing a coup d’etat (backed up by two arrests and a criminal investigation of the prosecutor) are hardly the type of confrontation addressed by ‘constructive dialogue’. In addition, the charge by the opposition of massive wire-tapping by the government of 20,000 citizens and the evidence contained therein also would provide little basis for a ‘constructive dialogue’. Of course, the note also outlines the need for a an investigation of the claims and rule of law. Considering the explosive nature of the case and suggestion of recently released recordings that the government party exerts considerable control the judiciary, such a call sounds like a pious wish.

The concept that the crisis in Macedonia is a result of insufficient dialogue between government and opposition downplays the increasingly authoritarian government and engages in suggesting equal responsibility for the political crisis. This is not to suggest that the opposition is without flaws, but “dialogue” reverses the burden from the stronger to the weaker.

In Serbia as well, the suggestion that additional evidence is required to identify a decline in the media environment and press freedom in Serbia flies in the face of reality. Both independent journalists (see also here, here), as well as a number of international observers (here, here, here, here, here)   have pointed out the considerable evidence on the declining press freedom. The head of the EU delegation, Michael Davenport can also provide some evidence of pressure on the media, when PM Vučić called BIRN liars and accused them of being sponsored by “Davenport”, i.e. the EU.



Generously providing evidence of the declining media and the degree to which media are used is the Serbian daily Informer, a mouthpiece of the government also contributed to clarifying the issue. In its Wednesday 18 February issue, it headlines with “Perversion. The EU hires a Šešelj man to prove censorship” and “Attack on Vučić from Paris. Legion of Honor this year for Olja Bećković [journalist and talk show host whose show was cancelled after criticism by Vučić] and Saša Janković [the Serbian Ombudsman].” (next to headlines such as ‘Nele Karaljic fears balija [a derogatory term for Bosniaks” and “Šiptars [derogatory term for Albanians] lynch Serb”).

While the EU seems far away from inviting the arsonists in to the EU (there is already Orban), the weak statements are reminiscent of Biedermann seeking to avoid conflict until it is too late. However, when Vučić called Johannes Hahn an honorable man (“častan covek”) for his demand for evidence, it might be time to get worried.



German original of above excerpts:

BIEDERMANN: Sie versprechen es mir aber: Sie sind aber wirklich kein Brandstifter

BIEDERMANN:—zum letzten Mal: Er ist kein Brandstifter.

STIMME: Woher weißt du das?

BIEDERMANN: Ich habe ihn ja selbst gefragt…Und überhaupt: Kann man eigentlich nichts anderes mehr denken in dieser Welt? Das ist ja zum Verrücktwerden, ihr mit euren Brandstiftern die ganze Zeit.

BIEDERMANN: Man soll nicht immer das Schlimmste denken. Wo führt
das hin! Ich will meine Ruhe und meinen Frieden haben,
nichts weiter, und was die beiden Herren betrifft—ganz
abgesehen davon, daß ich zur Zeit andere Sorgen habe…

Excerpts taken from Max Frisch, Biedermann und die Brandstifter. Frankfurt: Suhrkamp Verlag, 1981. All translation by myself.


[an earlier version stated that Hahn visited Serbia, but he visited Kosovo and Macedonia, his statement on Serbia was made in Brussels].

The meaning of Klaus Iohannis’ victory in Romania


The election of Klaus Iohannis, the mayor of Sibiu as president of Romania has been remarkable for a number of reasons. Not only did he lag behind in the first round of elections by 10 percent (30.37 to 40.44%) to Victor Ponta, the prime minister, but also few of the opinion polls expect his victory that turned out to be fairly decisive (for official results see here) after a close run at first, leading 10 percent over Ponta. However, it is less the election arithmetics that are striking as background of the victorious candidate and the type of politics of his opponent.

Klaus Iohannis (or Johannis to use the German spelling of his last name), is a member of the tiny German minority of Romania. He has been mayor of Sibiu for 14 years as a candidate of the German minority organisation, the Democratic Forum of Germans in Romania. The fact that he won the election in 2000 and subsequently with a large majority, desping Germans constituting only a small minority in Sibiu (less than 2%) suggest a broad appeal transcending classic minority politics. His victory at the national level, now as candidate (and president) of the conservative PNL confirms this. The switch from minority to main stream political parties is difficult in most European countries and the election as president as a member of a minority is quiet extrodinary. Several media attacked Iohannis for his minority background and in particular to him not being a member of the Orthodox church and Ponta himself made use of this theme in a convoluted comment“It’s nothing bad about Mr Iohannis being a German ethnic, but no one can accuse me of being a Romanian ethnic. We live in Romania after all and I am proud to be Romanian. The same about religion. It’s nothing bad about Mr Iohannis being a neo-protestant, but no one can reproach me with being an Orthodox”. Considering the close link of religion and national identity makes the victory of Iohannis more important. In a region where minorities have been included in parliaments and in governments, but the distinction between minority and majority has remainded salient, his victory is important. While Macedonia had a Methodist president, Boris Trajkovski, he was still clearly identified with the Macedonian majority and Slovakia had Rudolf Schuster as president (1999-2004), who is of German and Hungarian background, but this was not a feature of his political career and he was not a minority representative, but rather a former Communist who had joined the democratic opposition in 1989. The victory of Iohannis highlights the potention of minority politician become national politicians and that starting a career representing a minority does not preclude a broader appeal, in fact without it, Iohannis would have never been able to represent the German minority effectively. A caveat is in place here, the fact that Iohannis hails from the small German minority, associated with Germany and thus the EU and ‘the West’ makes him more able to transcend the majority-minority divide than if he had been a member of the much large Hungarian minority or a socially stigmatized group, such as the Roma.


The second level at which the victory of Iohannis is striking is in the defeat of Victor Ponta. In recent years, Ponta has been on the way to emulate the emerging pattern of soft semi-authoritarian rule in Central and Southeastern Europe, as Hungary under Viktor Orban, Macedonia under Nikola Gruevski, Milorad Dodik in the RS in Bosnia, Milo Djukanovic in Montenegro and recently also Aleksandar Vučić in Serbia. A combination of populism and clientalism has been able to combine control using undemocratic practicies with EU membership (or integration). These elections demonstrate that it them that are the archiles heel of these regimes. While they can manipulate and use state resources to their advantage, they still have to win on election day. A strong social media campaign and highly motivated Romanian voters abroad helped to undermine these practices. Of course, Ponta remains in office as Prime Minister, but complete control over politics in Romania remains elusive for him (unlike Orban). After Dodik suffered an important setback in Bosnian elections last months, it shows that these regimes might have been enduring, but also are weak.

The victory of Iohannis might thus have a demonstration effect on other countries in the region.  While some observers have warned of excessive optimism, in particular in terms of addressing the economic and social ills of society, it does send two clear messages to neighboring countries: First, a member of a minority can become a president and soft semi-authoritarian regimes can be broken, through elections.

What the elections mean for Serbian democracy

I am re-blogging my analysis of the Serbian elections written for the new Balkans in Europe Policy Blog.

When Aleksandar Vučić gave his victory speech on Sunday, after the resounding victory of his Progressive Party, his seriousness seemed in no proportion to his success. For the first time, since the second multi-party elections in 1992, can a single party govern the country alone. With 48.34% of the vote and 156 (of 250) seats in parliament, the party does not require a coalition partner, unless it wants a majority to the change the constitution.  There are dangers in this victory, both for the victor and for the Serbian democracy. First, Vučić and his party might have won a Pyrrhic victory. The elections were triggered by Vučić to diminish the rule of the prime minister Dačić and his socialist party. While he achieved this (although the SPS remains as strong as before in terms of votes), he cannot blame bad decisions on a coalition partner if he is to govern alone. It is thus unsurprising that despite the large majority, SNS seems to want to include some other parties in government. However, even if this were to be the case, the SNS will have a hard time bringing about early elections, as it did this time around. This technique, a favorite among incumbents in the region, (esp. in Macedonia and Montenegro) of getting re-elected when opinion polls are favorable, will not be easily available to the new government. Finally, the weaknesses of the party will become even more apparent. It failed to run a visible candidate for the mayor of Belgrade, as it lacked convincing and popular politicians, besides Vučić. If the party is to govern effectively, it will quickly need to increase its capacity, since cloning Vučić, as some satirical photomontages suggest, is not an option.

The risks for the Serbian democracy are equally apparent. A large majority, in a political system that is used to coalitions, bears its risks in the best of circumstances. However, Serbia lacks checks and balances to hold their governments under control. To some degree, coalition governments have been (flawed) alternatives to checks and balances. With few independent institutions, many loyal media outlets and two of the three opposition parties more eager to work with the Progressives than to criticize them, there is a risk that there will be too few critical voices in these institutions. The focus of outsiders on the Serbian government delivering on Kosovo has also muted external scrutiny of un-democratic practices. Not least, the elections themselves are a reflection of a problematic understanding of democratic processes. As a result, the elections do raise serious questions about the future of democracy in Serbia. It seems unlikely that the new government will become authoritarian, or step back into Miloševićs shoes, but Serbia might move away from democratic consolidation and towards a hybrid system that we can observe in other countries of the region.

In addition to this development, the elections have also highlighted the decline of the right and a general decrease of ideological differentiation in the party landscape.

The decline of the extreme right

A key feature is the continued decline of the extreme right and conservative parties in Serbia. For the first time since 2000, Vojislav Koštunica’s Democratic Party of Serbia is no longer represented in parliament. After being mocked as a “kombi party” for its ability to fit all members into a van in the 1990s, it is back at its beginnings. The opposition to EU integration and focus on Kosovo has not paid off.  Similarly, other parties, on the nationalist end of the spectrum, fared badly. The Serbian Radical Party continued its decline from 4.62% to 2% and Dveri, a more recent extreme right wing group, dropped from 4.34% to  3.57%. In addition, even smaller right-wing groups split less than one percent. This overall decline of the extreme and conservative right is an important, and easily overlooked, development in Serbian elections. It can be attributed to three factors: First, the populism of the Progressive Party itself, constituted by former radicals, has been able to absorb some of the vote. Second, the fragmentation of these parties—various talks of pre-election coalitions among Radicals, DSS, and Dveri failed—discouraged voters to choose any of them. Thirdly, the trend is part of a regional development. In Croatia, but also in Romania, the extreme right has declined in the context of EU accession. As the EU effectively rejects such parties, they become less attractive as most citizens are (skeptic) supporters of EU accession. Kosovo, and other national issues, also no longer figure into the agenda that voters care about.

Lack of Alternatives

The elections were fought among parties that all formally share the same goals and have no discernable ideological differences. All parliamentary parties want to join the EU, talk of “reforms” and oppose corruption. As a consequence, there is no reason that the incumbent would not win, when there is no alternative that is different. Besides the ideological similarities, most parties also demonstrated a willingness to form pre-election coalitions with parties whom they have few commonalities, and display, even for Serbian standards, a surprising lack of respect for democratic principles. When Boris Tadić made his comeback, after breaking with Djilas and the Democratic Party, he did not form his own party, but the Greens of Serbia were taken over by him (or offered). They changed their name to add «New Democratic Party» and voila, a green party became the election vehicle for Tadić.  The Liberal-democrats of Čedomir Jovanović used to offer a more radical reform program than the Democratic Party. However, its unprincipled coalition with a conservative Bosniak party, close to the mufti of Sandžak Zukorlić, and its continuous flirting with the Progressives discredited this claim. In effect, the only two programmatically consistent electoral lists where those of the Democratic Party of Serbia, which failed to enter parliament ,and the list of the former Minister of the Economy, Saša Radulović, „Dosta je bilo“ (Enough of this), which radically criticised the influence of political parties and the economic policies of Serbian governments in the past decade. While the consistency of the DSS is likely to lead them further into political oblivion, the list of Radulović might become more significant in Serbia. Having led a shoe-string campaign, barely managing the register of the list two weeks before the elections and facing strong attacks in the media, the 2.08 % the list achieved is no small feat.


Another way of rejecting the ideological and ethical homogenisation of Serbian party politics was a repeat of the „invalid vote“ campaign of 2012. Several activists called on citizens to go and vote, and then to reject any candidate by invalidating the ballot (see here from some examples). Altogether, some 3.17% of citizens did exactly that. While not all may have invalidated their ballot for the same reason, the high number suggests that most, probably, deliberately invalidated their ballot in protest. These numbers are lower than in 2012, when they were 4.39%, but remain remarkable. Finally, the easiest and most common manner of rejecting the current political offerings has been to simply not vote. Turnout was only 53.12%, or four percent less than 2 years ago, and the lowest for Serbian elections since the introduction of the multiparty system in 1990.

Thus, the Progressives have been able to capture the largest share of the electorate of any party since 1992, but their success is not built on energizing the electorate or changing the perception of politics, but rather as a result of citizens either resigning to the inevitable, or the irrelevant. The broader dissatisfaction with party politics will not be remedied by SNS, and thus some broader opposition, reflected in social movements or new parties, remains a distinct possibility, even as the pluralist political space might be decreasing.

The Authoritarian Temptation


Here is the English version of a comment I wrote for the Neue Zürcher Zeitung called “The Authorititarian Temptation in the Balkans”. It draws on an article (co-authored with Irena Ristić) and a book chapter published in 2012.

The Serbian elections 16th March end a year of political speculation. These are already the seventh early parliamentary elections since 1990, they are unnecessary as there was no government crisis ahead of them being called. The coalition government consisting of the Serbian Progressive Party (SNS ) of Aleksandar Vučić and the Socialist Party (SPS ) of Ivica Dačić was stable and had a solid majority . However, SNS wanted elections to translate their popularity into a large parliamentary majority. In 2012 SPS could still bargain hard to obtain the post of prime minister. Today, this is hardly imaginable. Although the SNS is unlikely to be able to govern on its own after the election, it can determine the shape of the government.  The early elections are an example of the authoritarian temptation of governing parties in the Balkans, weaken the rule of law to secure their own dominance.

The “semi- democracies” of Southeast Europe

Regular studies of the Bertelsmann Foundation and by Freedom House show, that a particular type of democracy has taken hold in South Eastern Europe: elections are democratic, the political landscape is diverse, but populist and corrupt governments hinder the consolidation of democratic structures. Most post-communist countries in Central Europe developed into consolidated democracies. In the  South Eastern Europe, however, was intermediate form dominants, the democratic formalities be observed, but at the same time, populist parties control the state through patronage structures. This is particularly evident through the dominance of political parties over the media, the state and the weak rule of law.  The election campaign had not yet begun in Serbia, as the Serbian Deputy Prime Minister Vučić saved a child stuck with its family in a snowstorm on the highway from Belgrade to Budapest. Conveniently,  the state television on hand to film it. While this ‘performance’ was quickly mocked in social networks, the message got through : Vučić rescues children, while others go campaigning.

Not only in Serbia have governing parties used their dominance to engage in a continuous election campaign.  Even when elections are not upcoming [this was written before early elections were called in Macedonia], the ruling party of Macedonia, VMRO-DPMNE constantly advertise their successes on billboards and in advertisements. Due to this non-stop campaign by governments, it is difficult for the opposition to formulate alternatives. In early elections governing parties already have a decisive edge.  A second aspect of the authoritarian temptation is reflected through control of the media. Only a few critical media of the nineties have survived the past decade. The economic crisis and the state as the most important advertiser to have resulted in a media landscape in the region in which critical voices hardly find a place. This is particularly pronounced in Montenegro, Macedonia and Bosnia. In Macedonia all important critical media, such as the private channel A1 have been forced to close done and only few journalists dare to openly criticize the government. In Montenegro, there is often to attacks by “unknown” perpetrators against independent media. In Bosnia is the businessman and media tycoon Radoncic to became security minister [he was dismissed the day the article was published], despite persistent rumors of his contacts to the underworld. In the Republika Srpska the media is local President Dodik, criticism is only aimed at against the opposition, “Sarajevo” and foreign powers. In Serbia, only few media nowadays dare to openly criticize Vucic.
Media loyal to the government, however, weaken the opposition. Allegations of corruption, often without evidence, are part of the strategy here. The tabloids in Serbia regularly accuse members of the DS government that was in power until 2012 of corruption. Even if these allegations are certainly partly justified, they are used to discredit political opponents.  In addition to accusations of corruption, government media also regularly challenging the loyalty of the opposition and suggest that it is committing treason of the state or nation, particular in Macedonia or the Republika Srpska.
A final aspect is the dominance of political parties over the state. Careers in the public administration and in government-controlled companies are usually only possible with party membership. Thus,
parties acts as employment agencies and can thus secure the loyalty of its voters. This reduces the potential for protest as public criticism may result in loss of employment.

Political, not cultural causes
the danger of populism with authoritarian tendencies is not limited to the Western Balkans. EU member states such as Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria show that with EU accession the danger is not over. The temptation is great to attribute this development to “Balkan political culture,” but it has more to do with weak states and social and economic crisis that predates the global economic crisis. Often the EU overlooks the authoritarian temptation too readily, as long as the governments
cooperate. Thus, the willingness of the Serbian government to compromise in dialogue with Kosovo helped to distract from domestic political populism. However, if the rule of law cannot take hold, this will either lead to social protests, as recently in Bosnia and Herzegovina, or to illiberal governments, which seek to preserve their power with populist means, as in Macedonia and, probably soon, Serbia.

The Merits and Pitfalls of Comparison: Ukraine, Crimea and the Yugoslav references

BiS67GQCcAA1LJi.jpg large


International crisis, like the one in Ukraine and Crimea always lead to a scramble for expertise and historical precedent. Actors themselves might model their actions on earlier experience (Putin copying his intervention in Georgia 2008) or refer to what they consider relevant precedents (such as the decision of the Crimean parliament in its declaration of independence to explicitly refer to the Kosovo declaration of independence). Analysts and scholars might refer to previous conflicts to illustrate particular risks or recommend certain lessons (see here or for an insightful and positive example, see the interview with Josip Glaurdić). It is easy to dismiss historical analogies, the context differs, the country and the actors are others, and the comparison might only be useful to serve a particular stand point (reminiscent of the US debates over intervention in Bosnia where the conflict was either viewed as a repetition of Vietnam–hopeless and fare away with no good sides–or the Holocaust–with one side guilty of genocidal crimes and all others victims). Yet comparisons are useful and should have a place in the analysis of crises such as the one in Ukraine. However, for comparisons to be useful, they need to move away from a simplistic ‘this is just like that’.

Comparisons are not just about identifying what is similar, but also what is different. This might sound banal for a social scientist, but much of the comparisons in media are driven by findings similarities rather than both difference and similarities and are also often dismissed on these grounds. Instead, comparisons are done by all observers intuitively, based on personal experience or knowledge of certain conflicts or events and thus, it is better to make these visible and explicit. Furthermore, comparisons help us avoid the fetish of the unique–country A or conflict B is so special and particular, it cannot be compared with anything else. Such an approach is neither helpful, nor correctly reflects any particular place or conflict.

So where can a comparison with the conflicts over the dissolution of Yugoslavia offer some insights?

On Facebook and Twitter a photo of the five or so Serbian Četniks in Crimea circulated with word bubbles (see above) suggesting that they confused Ukraine (Ukrajina) with the Krajina region in Croatia (both names deriving from the word for border. Indeed, the conflict in the Krajina region might be the most telling episode of the Yugoslav wars in this context. The log revolution in 1990 was the preparation for the war to come in the following year. The Serb Democratic Party took power in several municipalities in the Dalmatian hinterland, the Lika and Kordun region, as well as in Slavonia and declared so-called Serb Autonomous Regions (SAOs) that claimed autonomy from Croatia. The clumsy nationalist policies of the Tudjman regime, such as reducing the status of Serbs in the new Croat constitution provided ample munition to these nationalist entrepreneurs. As Mark Thompson in his book on the media wars documents, Serbian TV was re-broadcast in these regions (and in neighboring Bosnia), which spewed out a constant diet of half-truths, lies and propaganda. A referendum with a suspiciously high turnout then ratified the autonomy and later independence from Croatia and provided the justification for the intervention by the Yugoslav People’s Army.

There are a number of striking parallels with the current efforts of Russia to take control of Crimea—here are key differences: In 1990/1 it was not clear that border changes within Yugoslavia or once republics left the federation would not be possible. It was only later that the principle of uti possidetis was transferred from decolonization to the post-communist context. Thus, while insurgent Serbs in 1990/1 could have a realistic hope of achieving recognition for their project, this seems unlikely today. However, the durability of frozen conflicts with territories with long-term uncertain international status in the post-Soviet space (unlike the post-Yugoslav space) suggest that Crimea can exist in international limbo like Transnistria, South Ossetia or Abkhazia.

A parallel is the role of Putin’s Russia to that of Serbia under Milosevic: (Semi-)Authoritarian regimes use the conflict to bolster domestic legitimacy and are able to unify (at least briefly and publicly) the population behind a nationalist project. The claim that local authorities act autonomously were proven wrong in the Croat case through the ICTY and scholarship, and the limited information available in Crimea similarly suggests that the initiative comes from Moscow, not Crimea itself—which of course can feed of local grievances.

Finally, the weak response and lack of a clear strategy encourages such strategies to change the status quo by force. The weak response of the EU throughout the protests and in the aftermath the overthrow of Yanukovich only emboldened Putin, just like the weak EC and US response in the early 1990s encouraged the policies of Milošević.

What conclusions can we draw from these, arguably sketchy points of comparison? First, it is crucial for international actors to be engaged in crucial moments of revolution. Had there been stronger international engagement, it might have been possible to discourage the Ukrainian parliament from revoking the language law (the decision was vetoed by the president) that gave official status to Russian—irrespective of the substantive discussion one can have on it—the change of the law created real anxieties and also was a useful pretext. Second, the conflict will not go away by itself. There was nearly a year-long lull between the “log revolution” in 1990 and the full scale war in 1991. Similarly, the referendum in Crimea might lead to some new status quo that appears stabile, yet provides for a significant risk of escalation and also as a pivot for nationalist mobilization in both Russia and Ukraine. Third, in moments of confrontation it is easy to overlook the pluralism with countries, but it is important not think in absolutes: While Russia might appear to be a more unitary actor than the Ukraine, it would be wrong to take this as given or permanent (as it would suit Putin). In the Ukraine the success of protests can easily be jeopardized by the Crimea crisis. Nothing is as poisonous for democratization as a festering territorial dispute. Here the EU and the US would be well advised to act strongly and forcefully to help the new government move towards democracy and rule of law rather than dithering and then lamenting the failure of the new government. One concrete step for the EU would be to commit itself to the EU perspective for the Ukraine. This might seem ridiculously remote and undesirable for the EU now, but this is in fact already the case. A democratic Ukraine that fulfills the membership criteria can join, its location on the European continent is no doubt. Stating this clearly that, if it so desired, it can become a member, can provide for a strong incentive for change within and would be an appropriate acknowledgement of the risks the protestors took in recent months in Kiev and elsewhere.

Grand coalitions are not so grand anymore

What do recent elections in Austria, Luxembourg and Germany mean for scholars of power-sharing in divided societies? At first glance, seemingly little. Neither is a particularly divided society, and identity politics is not a defining feature of political choices. Yet, there is a significance in the results: When Arend Lijphart and other scholars first wrote about consociationalism  in the late 1960s and 1970s, the main examples for countries governed by this form of democracy where in the Benelux, Switzerland and Austria. Lijphart observed that unlike larger countries that had alternating large parties in power, these countries had fairly stable grand coalitions governing the country, usually including socialists and christian democrats. His writings challenged the idea that consolidated stable democracies have majoritarian systems with one large parties (alone or in coalition with smaller parties) governing. Not only are these consociational systems equally viable democracies, but the scholarship on these systems argued that they provided for democracy in societies that had deep cleavages. These were less based on ethnicity or language, but on political families and elections usually did not shift power-relations profoundly.

Now times have changed since these observations. While in Belgium, grand coalitions still remain strong (but increasingly difficult, see the more than one year long coalition talks following the 2010 elections) due to the linguistic divide.The Netherlands, Lijphart’s first case study, grand coalitions have fallen out of favor by the 1990s. Austria has been governing for half of the 68 years since 1945 by grand coalitions (1945-1966, 1987-2000 and since 2007). Elections in September have led to a drop in support for both ruling parties, Social democrats and the conservative Austrian People’s Party, but both still hold a slight majority and are likely to govern together. Luxembourg had a similar experience as Austria, governed by a grand coalition for most of the post-war period (1945-1969, 1984-1999 and since 2004). Yet after elections in October, the so-called “Gambia coalition” between Socialists, Greens and Liberals seems most likely.  Grand coalitions are on the retreat in classic consociational countries. This has happened before, but earlier, this was based on the strength of one of the large parties (social democrats or conservatives), now it is based on their weakness. Furthermore, the underlying structure that propped up these grand coalitions has eroded.

Ironically, a grand coalition is most likely and also according to voters most desired in Germany that saw only few episodes of grand coalitions since 1945 (1966-1969 and 2005-2009). Thus, the elections confirm that the classic divide between larger more majoritarian and smaller consociational democracies no longer seems to be true. Of course, the fact that grand coalitions loose support and consociationalism abolishes itself might be true in some of the original cases scholars looked at, but this does not mean the same will be true in “harder cases” like Lebanon or Bosnia. However, some of the reasons why citizens turn their backs on established consociational arrangements are similar to those why dissatisfaction runs high in others. Blurring the line between countries that are governed by grand coalitions and those that are not highlights that this might be a useful temporary constellation, but in the long run, it creates dissatisfaction with citizens who feel unable to effect change.  Certainly the continuous decline of consociationalism in the original core countries of this form of democracy should give room for reflection on its challenges in divided societies around the world.

Is Change Coming to Bosnia? Reflections on Protests and their Prospects

I want my ID number

When the protests in Turkey began on the 28 May, what struck me was the centrality of the Mediterranean as the focal areas of social movements in the last two years. In addition to the Arab spring (summer and winter), mass protests were held in Spain, Israel and Greece and Italy is experiencing a crisis of confidence in the established party system. While there, the democratic governments either fall or could/had to absorb the grievance of many, the dictatorships in the southern Mediterranean were not able to. While Turkey is closer to the democracies of the northern rim of the Mediterranean, the response of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has been more following the authoritarian reflex of its southern neighbors, thereby strengthening the protests.

At first, I was struck who the Balkans had been largely ‘protest-free’ in recent years, unlike neigbouring regions. However, recent protests in Bosnia suggest that the social movements against the status quo are now reaching the region as well. Of course, the protests in Sarajevo and other Bosnian cities had other causes as the protests in Turkey or other countries of the Mediterranean, but also share a number of features: the carries are young, urban, feel excluded from politics and government and see now other way to chance the status quo than by protest. What is striking is that the loss of public spaces and parks has been a key feature in small scale protests in the last years in the Balkans: Protests in Banja Luka in June of last year over a park, in Belgrade the cutting down of trees on Bulevar Revolucije earlier and in Tirana also over the destruction of a park. These protests failed to gather the momentum as in Turkey, largely because local politics and national politics had different dynamics, but they highlighted the concern not just for parks, but also for the symbolic loss of public spaces and more broadly a public good to what seems like narrow commercial (and political) interests. Thus the destruction of a park is a symbolic act that carries more significance than “just” an environmental issue, as Orhan Pamuk expressed in his reflections on the protests.

The current protests in Bosnia are not about a park, but over the lack of a decision. In a county that is more characterised by decisions not taken and with a prime minister (officially chair of the council of ministers) who claims in his government’s defense that “I think we are not the worst of the world, nor are we a country like Zimbabwe or Somalia”, it is decisions not taken that create most grief. After the constitutional court ruled in February that the current law on ID numbers is unconstitutional the government has been unable to propose a solution, resulting in newborns not being able to receive official documents. This has meant that newborns can’t get passports and are thus unable to travel. When the small baby Belmina Ibrišević needed to travel abroad for urgent medical treatment, but could not get the documents, the lack of a decision became a life or death issue and galvanized public opinion and led to protests.

The Bosnian government is notorious for not taking decisions as these are caught between competing interests of the entities and ethnopolitics where the substance of decisions is trumped by the question of who is to be in charge. Next to ID numbers, this is nowhere as obvious as the dispute in Bosnia about veterinary and sanitary inspections. As Bosnian politicians have been unable to agree on who is to implement the inspections, thousands of Bosnian farmers are likely to be unable to export their dairy products to Croatia once it joins the EU next month and more rigid controls come into effect. While here, also the economic survival of many hangs in the balance, it has not mobilized protests as the issue over ID numbers.

The response of political elites to the protests has been ugly. While some tried to ingratiate themselves with them, others dismissed the protests as either being anti-Serb or called on citizens to get off the streets and vote in next years elections. This response led Eric Gordy to comment in his blog that “[t]he national game is up. When it worked it produced a generation of politicians who believed that firing up resentment and fear would give them a permanent hold on power. It’s ringing hollow and their permanent mark is fading. They have become objects of ridicule. They’re over.”

While I wish he was right, I am more skeptical in my view. Heleen Touquet in her PhD on new social movements in Bosnia: “Escaping ethnopolis: postethnic mobilization in Bosnia-Herzegovina” (for the table of contents, see here) looked closely at groups in recent years that sought to mobilization citizens against the status quo. These efforts have largely failed, because they were unable to build a genuine cross-ethnic constituency or a country agenda that would make it difficult for existing elites to dismiss or ignore them. The new protest have this potential. There are, however, two formidable obstacles: First, how to build an agenda for change that all citizens of Bosnia can rally for. Second, how to translate this movement into a political option. While social movements can set the agenda, change has to come from the political system (unless it is overthrown in a revolution). While there are some parties (like Naša stranka) that aspire to pursue different politics than the currently dominant parties, it is at the moment hard to imagine a country-wide political movement that could be successful and transform the way decisions are taken and how the country is governed. The current political set-up encourages parties to run on mono-ethnic platforms and makes it easy of ethnonationalist parties to sow the seeds of doubt in change.

Notes from Ditchley


I returned a few ago from a very interesting conference at Ditchley on the Western Balkans. The discussions with policy makers and analysts did not raise any radical new ideas, but it was good opportunity to take the temperature on thinking about and from the region. It was also a lesson in bad metaphors. Many felt that carrots and sticks are not working, but theories why differed: People in the Balkans prefer meat to carrots or the carrot is actually a stick. Either way, the days of carrots and sticks seems to be over (nobody mentioned that the metaphor implies that the person in question is either a horse or a donkey).

There was broad consensus that overall things were heading in the right direction, but there were a number of warnings: many (but not all) thought that the state of democracy & rule of law and lack of deep rooted reforms in the economy will continue to be a source of difficulties in the years to come. There was a bit of a divide between a number of Western policy makers who felt that the EU and its member states were doing enough to bring the countries of the region into the EU and that it was up to political elites to make an extra effort and a number of analysts who thought the EU should do more and make the membership perspective more realistic. A specific suggestion was for the EU to begin accession talks with all countries of the region as soon as possible rather than wait for each country on their own to fulfill the specific conditions. Once talks begin–the symbolic year of 2014 was mentioned as start date–the negotiation process will force countries to shape up and carry out reforms in a manner that is unrealistic prior to the beginning of talks. It seemed clear that such a scenario is unrealistic at the moment with a many member states skeptical about enlargement and afraid (although unjustifiably so–see Turkey) that accession talks would lead to membership ‘on the sneak’. A problem that has become more pronounced in recent years is the use of individual member states to use the accession process to set additional conditions. This has made the accession process less predictable as the Commission cannot guarantee the next step in the process as individual countries might block whatever comes next for unexpected reasons that have little to do with accession. Of course, this also undermines the credibility of EU accession. The current approach of the Commission to launch dialogues with countries without accession talks has been a good way forward but without beefing up the DG Enlargement this cannot be expanded more broadly.

The most encouraging signals came over the Serbia-Kosovo talks which are expected to lead to some tangible conclusions before the summer and when the current window of opportunity might close. On the other hand, Bosnia was much discussed, but there were few new ideas on how to help the country out of its current deadlock.

I found it encouraging that there is a clear sense that incrementalism is the way forward, there is not going to be a big bang, but rather small steps that will change the region and resolve the open questions. For this to be successful, one needs to overcome the dynamics of what one participants aptly called the EU member states pretending to enlarge and elites in the Western Balkans pretending to reform.


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