Democracy Comes at a Price in the Western Balkans

This article was originaly published in The National Interest

Political extremism and radicalization in liberal democracies are not new phenomena. For the past several hundred years, Western thinkers have struggled to determine how far a citizen of a liberal democracy could legitimately go in expressing his or her beliefs and, more importantly, acting on them. They have also wrestled with the related question of how limited government—institutionalized through doctrines like checks and balances and the separation of powers—can best support individual endeavors and aspirations whilst defending the constitutional order against those who seek to endanger it.

Contemporary debates on counterterrorism, for instance, are conceptually not that far off from twentieth century ones about countering totalitarianism on both the left and the right. Then, as now, the line was usually drawn at sedition: one may publicly criticize all one wants whilst making use of the electoral process to effectuate the change one seeks—this legitimately falls within the prescribed limits of free speech and lawful political action.

An altogether different problem arises when a liberal democracy—especially one in its nascent stage—becomes incapable of countering the nefarious ambitions of an elected leader who pays lip service to the institutions of the constitutional order to rule in a manner that endangers its core tenets; in other words, when a leader abrogates his fundamental responsibility to the people by equating the perpetuation of his personal reign with the ongoing authority of the state.

Some of the most insightful writings on this problem are to be found in the final volume of Alexis de Tocqueville’s magnum opus, Democracy in America(1840)—in those chapters that constitute an examination of challenges common to democracies tout court. The French political philosopher warns of the dangers of “soft despotism,” whereby a leader conspires against his own citizenry, endeavoring to weaken, isolate, and alienate each of its members through the creation of an “immense tutelary power.”

All-powerful and elected, such an “irresponsible” leader sees himself as “alone tak[ing] charge of assuring citizens’ enjoyments and watching over their fate.” This would resemble, Tocqueville writes, “paternal power if, like that, it had for its object to prepare men for manhood; but on the contrary, it seeks only to keep them fixed irrevocably in childhood; it likes citizens to enjoy themselves provided that they think only of enjoying themselves. [ . . . ] It wants to be the unique agent and sole arbiter of that,” and “penetrate the sphere of private interests more habitually and more deeply.”

This modern form of what Tocqueville calls “servitude” is achieved in part through “subjugation in small affairs, [ . . . ] constantly thwart[ing] [men] and brings them to renounce the use of their wills. Thus, little by little, it extinguishes their spirits and enervates their souls.” It renders citizens “so dependent on the central power” through habituating obedience that they “lose little by little the faculty of thinking, feeling, and acting by themselves.” [ . . . ] “Thus, after taking each individual by turns in its powerful hands and kneading him as it likes, the sovereign extends its arms over society as a whole; [ . . . ] it rarely forces one to act, but it constantly opposes itself to one’s acting; it does not destroy, it prevents things from being born.”

Tocqueville’s portrait of despotism arising in democracy is “soft” when compared to, for example, the Jacobin terror, Leopold II’s heart of darkness in the Congo, Stalin’s gulag archipelago, Hitler’s totalitarianism and its culmination in the Holocaust, or the Khmer Rouge’s genocidal social engineering. Yet by propagating anxiety, doubt, and uncertainty; hindering any prospect of hope, the driving force behind all democratic institutions; and systematically imposing tutelary dependence and servility on an unsuspecting populace, it represents a degradation of the human spirit just the same.

Soft despotism propagandizes the prestige of unlimited power and denigrates the rule of law, exerting enormous influence on the course of any society it enshackles. It encourages uniform mass opinions, gives birth to prejudices, and fosters ever-deepening divisions. It designates as mortal enemies those who oppose its stranglehold on the nation, delivering the fate of an entire people to the savage political instincts of those most capable of channeling society’s fears, vices and fissures.

Regrettably, soft despotism continues to manifest itself in various forms in a number of nations across the Old Continent, including in those parts of the Balkans that remains outside the European Union.

Specific circumstances have eased the way for the sort of despotic leaders described by Tocqueville to seize power and establish a type of regime that has come to be known as “stabilitocracy.”

Political scientists like Florian Bieber, Srdja Pavlović, Antoinette Primatarova, and Johanna Deimel have contributed to defining this contemporary phenomenon: a reactionary manner of personal rule that claims to secure stability, feigns the espousal of European values, and professes to support EU integration whilst in reality relying on authoritarian means to stay in power. Such methods include: promotion of a single-party political culture; reliance on informal kleptocratic structures; significant electoral irregularities; control of the media landscape; slanderous vilification of opponents; collaboration with organized crime figures; extensive exploitation of state resources for political advantage; suppression of citizens’ fundamental rights and freedoms; downgrading of parliamentary debate; and regular production of crises to undermine the rule of law and subordinate the independence of state institutions like the police, the military, the judiciary, and the tax authority.

Stabilitocracy does share certain features with what has been defined variously as managed, illiberal, hybrid, or majoritarian democracy—or what Larry Diamond has called postmodern autocracy: an “arrangement that leaves the shell of democratic institutions standing but hollows out the pluralist essence—a free press and civil society, an independent judiciary, a fair electoral playing field—that it is nearly impossible to defeat the ruling party through normal politics.” But it is distinct from these other contemporary threats to liberal democracy for at least two reasons. First, it distinguishes between those countries whose EU aspirations are widely understood as realistic such as the Western Balkans, others that although geographically proximate have no credible chance to join the Union, and still others that are already members. Second, it adds the crucial factor of a grant of external legitimacy to the understanding of contemporary Balkan despotisms.

This last is the most distinctive feature of stabilitocracy, one that thinkers such as Tocqueville did not consider in their writings. The modern-day Balkan stabilitocratic despot relies on what is portrayed as the public support of the European Union and its member states, as well as other external actors, to maintain his grip on power. This rule is reinforced by what appears to be a tacit agreement between the despot and certain European decisionmakers that as long as the former maintains the semblance of “stability” in his country, the latter would turn a blind eye to the increasing manifestation of authoritarianism. At the same time, both would seem comfortable with maintaining the illusion that accession negotiations remain steadily on track, even though there is no realistic end in sight to the process.

The contours of this pact for “stability” are not normative, but rather circumstantial. At the height of the migration crisis, for instance, it was understood to mean doing what was asked to stem the flow of refugees from the Middle East transiting through the region on the way to Central and Western Europe. More recently, it has been assumed to require high-level engagement with regional foes or competitors in theatrical exercises that have the appearance of endeavoring to overcome various unresolved issues in the Balkans.

One can trace the origins of what can be interpreted as a quid pro quoarrangement between Balkan stabilitocrats and European governments to what an August 2017 report published by the European Council on Foreign Relations characterized as the “trinity of economic uncertainty, cultural anxiety, and political alienation” that has been present throughout the EU for a number of years. One manifestation of this general feeling of malaise is the heightened skepticism of Europeans towards expanding the Union, as illustrated by the results of an October 2017 representative poll of Germans commissioned by the Körber-Stiftung, in which two-thirds of respondents voiced opposition to Balkan membership in the EU.

It is thus safe to say that the void created by enlargement fatigue facilitated the emergence of stabilitocracy in the Balkans, although one could argue that it is also part of a broader decline of democracy in the world. Freedom House has noted in its 2018 Freedom in the World report that there has been twelve consecutive years of decline in global freedom, with setbacks being observed in political rights, civil liberties or both even in countries categorized as “free.” Nearly one quarter of the countries registering declines in the past few years have been in Europe.

One of these was Serbia, whose democracy score fell to its lowest level since the restoration of democracy at the turn of the century. Similar assessments have been made with regards to other Balkan stabilitocratic despotisms. The case of Serbia, however, is particularly egregious. To quote from Freedom House’s 2018 flagship report: “In Serbia, EU leaders’ tolerance of Prime Minister Aleksandar Vučić’s authoritarian tendencies allowed him to further sideline the opposition and undermine what remains of the independent media after winning the country’s presidency in April.” The origins of these “tendencies” go back to 2012, the year he returned to power (he served as Slobodan Milošević’s information minister in the 1990s).

For nearly six years, Vučić has held firmly in his despotic hands the destiny of the largest country in the Western Balkans: first as deputy prime minister, then as prime minister, and now as president. The nature of his despotic rule is such that whatever formal position he holds in the constitutional order at any given moment is trumped by the absolute control he exercises over state institutions through tight-knit, informal, and opaque networks. Such a denigration of the rule of law constitutes the very definition of abuse of power in a liberal democracy.

Vučić continues to operate on the assumption that state institutions must not serve as barriers to the exercise of his will-to-power whilst brutally manipulating public opinion in favor of his own selfish interests. Indeed, his despotic ability to impede the access of citizens to the free flow of information represents the core of his stabilitocratic “achievement.” As Tocqueville wrote: “servitude cannot be complete if the press is free. The press is the democratic instrument of freedom par excellence.”

In Serbia, that instrument has been almost fully broken: virtually every major media outlet has surrendered its objectivity and independence to Vučić’s demands of fealty and subservience—becoming, in the process, clear-cut instruments of propaganda and manipulation. As the newly released Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index underscores, the nation’s media is “heavily controlled by the government,” which takes an “uncompromisingly hostile approach to [the few remaining] news organizations that have been more outspoken against the government.” Indeed, a few months ago the President of the European Federation of Journalists, Mogens Blicher Bjerregard, designated Vučić’s Serbia as “the nation with the worst violations of media freedom in the Balkans.” A cult of personality is on offer, with the bias of the state-owned public broadcaster’s flagship nightly news program being surpassed only by that of the country’s most-watched private television networks. The time and quality of coverage devoted to Vučić dramatically surpasses that of anyone else. On the mainstream networks and daily newspapers, disapproval of his regime is virtually non-existent, and the popular political programs on television—those that have not been taken off the air, that is—rarely, if ever, feature critical views or contrary opinions.

Nonpolitical programming largely takes the form of a variety of obnoxious reality shows whose content Tocqueville, for one, would comfortably describe as advancing the ultimate goal of soft despotism: “to take away entirely the trouble of thinking” from individuals by fostering “general apathy.” These spectacles, which draw sky-high ratings, encourage viewers to live entirely in the present—devoid of hope for a better future. And because what they watch is at once both astoundingly vulgar and vapid, the subliminal message is that they should feel content in their circumstances. It’s what passes for catharsis in a society weighed down by resignation.

About a year ago, the Center for International Relations and Sustainable Development, a think-tank I helped establish in late 2013, added a question to the monthly public opinion surveys we commission: “would you encourage your child (or children) to emigrate from Serbia if such an opportunity presented itself?” At no time have fewer than 50.8 percent of respondents answered “yes”—on one occasion 61.8 percent gave an affirmative reply. Such alarming numbers have been ignored by the mainstream media; the same goes for figures indicating tens of thousands of educated young people have left the country annually since Vučić won his first election.

It is also not at all surprising that the country’s dismal economic performance has not been widely discussed. Vučić came to power promising at least 5 percent annual growth; and a lot of his backers and supporters, both at home and abroad, seemed to think it was an eminently reachable target. It turns out that they were dead wrong, for as Zimbabwe’s former finance minister Tendai Biti said a couple of months ago, “you can rig elections but you can’t rig the economy.”

IMF and World Bank statistics for the relevant timeframe indicate that Serbia’s GDP and GDP per capita have declined, as have wages; interest payments on the country’s external debt have nearly doubled, as has the public debt; the debt-to-GDP ratio has also grown significantly. Also, Eurostat data indicates that Serbia is the country with the most extreme income inequality in Europe. And despite offering generous subsidies and emphasizing low labor costs, Vučić has not been able to attract much FDI over the past five years.

The precipitous erosion of Serbia’s economic performance is even more deplorable when compared to virtually any other place in the Balkans: in the last five years, Albania, Bosnia, Bulgaria, Macedonia, Montenegro, and Romania all grew at higher rates. The World Bank projects that the Serbian economy will continue to grow less than the regional average in 2018 and 2019, widening the performance gap even further. These facts make a mockery of the regime’s claim that Serbia had become the economic leader of the Balkans.

Another shocking development that made global headlines was the late February 2018 announcement by the Financial Action Task Force—the global standard setting body for anti-money laundering and combating the financing of terrorism (AML/CFT)—that Serbia was the only European country to have been added to a list of only eight other jurisdictions, including Syria and Yemen, identified as having “strategic deficiencies” in their respective AML/CFT regimes. This is currently the international community’s most condemnatory designation of noncompliance in what is without a doubt a critically important field of contemporary multilateral cooperation.

In the case of Serbia, the uncovered “strategic deficiencies” are truly alarming. They include a lack of institutional understanding of key risks; the absence of legal and regulatory provisions to supervise the work of lawyers, notaries, and casinos; inadequate implementation of international financial and banking norms regarding due diligence, politically-exposed persons, and wire transfers; the nonexistence of mechanisms to identify corporate beneficial ownership; lax money laundering investigatory and prosecutorial standards; and no implementation of targeted financial sanctions measures related to terrorist and proliferation financing.

At the very least, this very public indictment means that the country’s stabilitocratic despotism is grossly negligent in having failed to apply over a period of several years even the most rudimentary international AML/CFT safeguards. But that is far from the whole story, for it could also imply serious criminal complicity: the acts described are not those of mere omission, but of commission as well. If such is the case—and I believe it is—then one must conclude that the regime benefits from being one of the world’s most attractive AML/CFT destinations. It would certainly help explain why the level of corruption in Serbia has reached endemic proportions. As such, it strongly points to the necessity of ensuring that a lustration law will need to be part of the legislative package that is enacted in the immediate aftermath of Vučić’s downfall.

To this point, Vučić’s sophisticated propaganda machine—which grows more effective and censorious the longer it is allowed to operate with impunity—has been able to ensure that he maintains his stranglehold on the levers of power. Other Balkan strongmen have had similar “success.” So far, only in Macedonia have we seen popular discontent produce a democratic restoration.

The good news coming out of Skopje has also not gone unnoticed in Europe’s highest decision-making circles. Zaev’s recent democratic triumph may have even served as a long overdue catalyst for the EU’s tolerance for stabilitocratic despotism in the Balkans to reach an inflection point.

Consider what may turn out to be a game-changing report by the European Commission titled A Credible Enlargement Perspective for and Enhanced EU Engagement with the Western Balkans. The mere fact that it underscored the “firm, merit-based prospect of EU membership for the Western Balkans” and stressed that “joining the EU is far more than a technical process; it is a generational choice, based on fundamental values” may represent the beginning of the EU’s change of heart vis-à-vis stabilitocracy.

But other parts of the communication have gone even further: for the first time in a publicly released document, the EU painted a realistic picture of the dismal state of democracy in the region. The passage that follows could be considered a repudiation of the lenience heretofore accorded to the region’s democratic despots: “Today, the countries [of the Balkans] show clear elements of state capture, including links with organized crime and corruption at all levels of government and administration, as well as a strong entanglement of public and private interests. All this feeds a sentiment of impunity and inequality. There is also extensive political interference in and control of the media. A visibly empowered and independent judiciary and accountable governments and administrations are essential for bringing about the lasting societal change that is needed.”

For those of us who have opposed the region’s stabilitocratic despots and fought to dismantle the immense tutelary power at their disposal, the EU communication reads like a small breath of fresh air, opening the way for a truly stable and prosperous Western Balkans to become an eminently reachable goal in this generation.

Vuk Jeremić, a former Serbian foreign minister and President of the sixty-seventh session of the UN General Assembly, is the President of Serbia’s opposition centrist People’s Party. He is also President of the Belgrade-based think-tank, the Center for International Relations and Sustainable Development (CIRSD).

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