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Democracy and Autocracies in the “Western Balkans”

A specific type of autocracy has been gradually installed in the so-called Western Balkans, the group of countries in southeast Europe that has yet to join the European Union (EU). The rise of autocracies is noticeable after the failure of the relatively short experiment with pluralism, which for some time carried the mask of democracy, even though it was nothing but the rotation in and out of power of corrupt leaders and parties serving as mere managers of the state and its privatization.

The typical example of this “fatigue” with pluralism is the small republic of Montenegro. For 21 out of the last 25 years since the fall of the single-party regimes, Milo Djukanovic has been either prime minister or president. His party, the Democratic Party of Socialists, enjoys an unbending power, always capable of fracturing the opposition and playing with identity politics by forming coalitions with Montenegrin parties of any ideological or ethnic background.

In the beginning of the 2000s, hardly anyone expected Montenegro to become a model for its neighbors. But as a result of the quick integration of the Balkan underground, the interests of criminal cartels, money laundering, contraband and trafficking, the region’s political elites started taking lessons from Milo’s experience. But what is that experience?

On one hand, it is the upholding of power through clientelism and the capturing of the state by means of putting it in the service of oligarchs. Such a system of ruling includes but is not limited to the following: the control of the electorate through distribution of jobs in public administration (at times even in private companies) as a “reward” for a certain number of votes; the use of the public budget to legally or illegally finance electoral activities; lobbying and public marketing inside and outside the country aimed at weakening the opposition; the treatment of public property and finances as a pie to be shared with the first circle of supportive oligarchs; complete control of public institutions by private interests and the transferring of some state attributes – among others, legitimacy on the exercise of violence – over to private actors.

On the other hand, all these “unpleasant” things are accompanied with a glaring cover: the unconditional embrace of “European integration” and “Euro-Atlanticism” as a governing and populist ideology. The continuous and pitiless discourse against corruption is one of the main elements of this ideology; the fact that the more corrupted the politicians the more they seem willing to speak about anti-corruption should not surprise us at all. In public discourse, prevailing views claim that the state is not efficient, that public institutions are failing, and therefore what is needed are privatizations, concessions, public-private partnerships, etc. Equally ideological is the attempt to attract foreign investors by breaching laws that protect labor, by reducing the minimum wage, in short by aiming to seduce the investor-client, who buys the labor power with increasingly lower prices. The main element of the ruling ideology is the resolve to remain open to continuous “consultations” with ambassadors and international missions. Remaining permanently open to electoral, judicial, fiscal, and legal reforms creates an suitable institutional fluidity that effectively destroys the capacity of law to constrain political and economic power, whether local or foreign. Someone might ask how is it possible that the corrupted politicians themselves are interested in cooperating with diplomats and EU missions, in establishing new anti-corruption bodies, in creating specialized new courts, in welcoming missions such as the EU Rule of Law mission in Kosovo (EULEX), etc. But local rulers know very well that each legal system is limited and vulnerable. Does not each legal system produce its own transgressions and its own underground? As long as their power is not politically and socially challenged with the aim of not simply changing it but transforming it, there will be no institution or mission that will succeed in “exporting” an efficient judiciary in the Balkans.

A side effect of these ruling methods is the destruction of community culture. The destitution of schools and public services and the spread of ignorance and poverty are things that make communities withdraw into ancient sanctuaries such as the narrowly conceived ethnic, religious, or provincial identities. Solidarity is also sought within the tribe and the family, since the larger umbrellas of communitarian ethos—i.e., the republic, democracy, and the welfare state—have all failed before being able to strike root in social reality. This produces an excessively factionalized, dysfunctional, stagnant, and entirely conservative society, one where identities are continuously overpoliticized and politics is more and more preoccupied with issues of identity. The exaggerated tensions over identity issues produce a situation that weakens real political opposition to the regimes in power. Thus, Balkan neoliberalism produces its own neo-conservatism, which serves it in turn as concrete for its own foundations.


In autumn 2016, Montenegro will hold its next elections. If we rely on the Kantian notion of hope, we could speak about hope only when the course of developments is not already pre-determined—in other words, when the results are not known in advance. In this respect, there is no hope for the winner of the elections; it is already known that it will be Djukanovic’s DPS. The sole hope lies with the partner that Djukanovic will draft into his coalition. And that means, which Bosnians, which Serbians, which Croatians, which Albanians? Which Yugo-nostalgics, which proto-fascists, which religious fanatics, and which radicals? A big competition for a small country…


In 2016 there will be a snap election in Macedonia too. These elections came as a result of huge protests organized by opposition party LSDM, and a few others organized by civic movements of the Albanian minority (without, however, an overlapping of the two). Last year, political stability in Macedonia was appalled by the publication of tapes of phone conversations between high officials in the Gruevski –Ahmeti government, and by the May violence in Kumanova, which had a tragic end.

But Gruevski does not differ much from Djukanovic. He controls the employment in public administration, whilst taking support from an oligarchic network. The tapes of phone conversations revealed how it was possible to manage the Albanian part of the electorate through a game organized between the two Albanian minority parties, namely, BDI and PDSH. Through his politics of ethnic competition, Gruevski has produced a republic with two standards. Albanians, who constitute Macedonia’s second largest national group, are discriminated in investments, infrastructure, institutional and administrative practice, employment, and trials. Nevertheless, this is not a significant challenge for Gruevski. Through a politics of policing and fear mongering, wire tapping and use of intelligence services, he managed not only to create a consensus around his rule, but also to undermine the dissensus, or the organization of opposition against him.

Even in the case of the duo Gruevski-Ahmeti, it seems unlikely that elections will bring any changes. Their marriage seems poised to emerge victorious even this time around. The opposition LSDM could not achieve enough transparency vis-à-vis Albanians, and as a result, it did not publish the long awaited phone tappings from the “Monstra” case, which were expected to reveal how implicated government officials were in setting up unfair trials against Albanians. In addition, LSDM does not offer ethnic Macedonians any reason for abandoning VMRO; it appears as a “light” version of VMRO, just as its leader, Zaev, appears to be only slightly different from Gruevski—less brutal perhaps, but sharing fundamentally similar goals with him.

The same thing can be said about the Albanian opposition to Gruevski’s coalition partner, Ali Ahmeti. They have been unable to come together under an alternative organization, and therefore stand divided into several small parties. Even though their success would be welcome, their rifts over specific interests directly strengthen Ahmeti’s position. After assuming control over the instrument of employment deriving from the Ohrid agreement of 2001, Ahmeti has been able to assume control over the employment of virtually all Albanians in the public administration. In other words, Gruevski, who has served as prime minister for 10 years now, seems likely to win the new elections, extending his political life even more.


In spring 2016 there will be snap elections in Serbia as well. This time, the stable pole of power is Aleksandar Vucic, former Minister of Information of the notorious Slobodan Milosevic during the war in Kosovo. Vucic does not have as many years in power as the politicians described above, since he became prime minister only in 2014. However, those who are aware of the region’s politics know how difficult it is to transform oneself in less than two decades from being a lieutenant of Milosevic to being one of Europe’s darlings.

Montenegrin Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic (left) and Serbian Prime Miniter, Aleksandar Vucic (right) shaking hands.
Montenegrin Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic (left) and Serbian Prime Miniter, Aleksandar Vucic (right) shaking hands.

The power of Vucic and the Progressive Party that he leads is grounded mainly in the fact that he already holds more than 50% of the electorate, which enables him to form the government without needing a coalition partner. Nevertheless, Vucic does not refrain from forming coalitions. In the mandate that is about to terminate, he has been in coalition with Ivica Dacic, a former spokesperson of Milosevic, and chairman of the party formerly headed by the genocidal leader. In the outgoing government, Dacic and his party represent (at least symbolically) the remains of Russian influence in Serbia.

But, in the coming government, which looks like it will be once again led by Vucic, Dacic is expected to move over to the side of the opposition, while part of the new governing coalition will be the liberals Boris Tadic and Cedomir Jovanovic, both presidents of minor parties best known for their corruption. Through making this move Vucic improves his Europeanist image, and temporarily distances himself from Russia (even though this move is just part of the show, as the official and unofficial politics of Serbia will continue to be in a simultaneous flirt with both Moscow and Brussels so as long as this two-way game continues to bring benefits.)

It is not only that Vucic faces no real opposition, as all the other parties are too small to present a real challenge, but there is no hope in the entire political spectrum either. 85% of the parliamentary spectrum in Serbia consists of parties that nourish more or less the same ambition—namely, to reanimate or rebuild a Serbian hegemony in the Balkans by maintaining control over Bosnia, Kosova, Montenegro, and Macedonia. The sole debate is whether, come the right moment, this should be done through soft or violent expansion. The other remaining 15% of the spectrum are mostly minorities, which are as divided and agitated as in the cases above. Vucic, apart from being a good strategist of Serbian expansion, is also a master in marketing and spectacle. A few days ago, he organized a mass arrest of former state officials suspected of corruption. Everyone applauded such an action; opposition parties of neighboring countries even greeted it as a positive example that ought to be followed by their own countries. Very few took note of the fact that Vucic arrested only opposition officials. It is easy to fight corruption within opposition ranks, because as the citizens of Serbia and of every other Balkan country know all to well, corruption is greatest among those in and close to political power.


Albania and Kosovo, though quite similar to the examples above, constitute two curious exceptions to the rule.

In Albania, the safe pole of power is not a vast party or a peerless coalition, as in the preceding cases. Rather, the safe pole of power there is Ilir Meta and his average-sized party that effectively embodies the marriage of politics to business. That party is LSI, widely proclaimed as “kingmaker”. Known for the employment of almost every single member –and thus, for the functioning of a perfect clientocracy – it is already in position to decide which one of the two big parties will be in power, PD or PS. Many believe that the existence of LSI serves to highlight the hypocrisy of pluralism, and to unmask the fact that PD and PS are similar (apart from their party colors). But, on the other hand, LSI also offers a good excuse for the failures of the two major parties, neither of which has hesitated to blame the “forced coalition” with LSI for their failures to deliver good results in governance.

Leader of the Albanian Socialist Party (PS), Edi Rama (left) and Ilir Meta, leader of the Socialist Movement for Integration (LSI).
Leader of the Albanian Socialist Party (PS), Edi Rama (left) and Ilir Meta, leader of the Socialist Movement for Integration (LSI).

At present, Prime Minister Edi Rama, a politician with superficial knowledge of politics, of his own country, and of the region seems to be trying to weaken Ilir Meta through a reform of the judiciary, which ought to have the ability to punish the “elephants” of corruption, and not only minor officials. Rama is currently trying to find allies for his reforms among diplomats (thus, to import justice.) But, in the meantime, it is a well-known fact that while Rama is struggling to symbolically damage Meta, Meta is structurally undermining Rama’s party by “buying” a part of its base in exchange for employment. The events taking place in Albania are a curious case, since it remains to be seen if what has failed everywhere else can take place here – namely, fighting the mafia and the oligarchy by means of a “judicial revolution” (a somewhat oxymoronic concept).

Chances for success are rather slim. First, because Meta has already restored his relations with Berisha and the PD, and secondly, because Rama has its own “Metas” inside his party, dozens of them, who would be the first to undermine Rama’s “judicial revolution,” if the latter ever came into being. Finally, Berisha also has his own “Metas”, who create a quite favorable environment for Ilir Meta’s thriving as a symbol, public persona, and political phenomenon.


In Kosovo, the situation is quite the contrary. Rotating parties keep one-another in power. This came as a result of the strengthening of an anti-establishment movement, the Movement for Self-determination (LV). Against all odds, LV succeeded in becoming a factor and the biggest opposition force. And as if all that were not enough, LV has succeeded, for the first time in Kosovo, in uniting the opposition parties, in spite of criticisms by sometimes well-meaning, and other times well-paid moralists in the media. In terms of the party spectrum and its internal transformation, Kosovo seems to resemble much more the post-Podemos Spain than its own neighbors and the surrounding region.

The truth is that Thaçi and Mustafa, and PDK and LDK, do not represent anything different from the rest of the region’s ruling parties. But, in contrast to those countries, in Kosovo there exists an alternative, a new movement that has been untried before. It is a movement critical towards “democracy as a rotation of parties” in power, a movement with a democratic and an anti-authoritarian organization, a modern leftist subject with an elaborated politics of social equality. Above all, it is a movement that no one can accuse of corruption, even though it presently governs the capital city of Kosovo. In the capital, LV has halted the city’s dangerous construction mafia, and it has thereby proven to be a movement that does not fear confrontations with organized crime. At the same time, it is precisely because of the strength that this moral and legal integrity gives it that it is the only political organization with the audacity to say no to powerful diplomats when such is what the country’s best interests demand.

At the beginning of this article, we saw how the negative model of Milo Djukanovic got transferred and multiplied across the countries of the so-called “Western Balkans”. Could a positive counterexample be built and strengthened in another small country of the region? And could it then successfully spread into the neighboring countries? In other words, would it be possible for self-determining democracy to take the place of Balkan autocracy? It remains to be seen.



Arber ZaimiArbër Zaimi is based in Prishtina, Kosova. He is an activist at the Movement for Self-Determination (Lëvizja Vetëvendosje). He studied Political Sciences and Philosophy at the University of Tirana, where he was one of the founders of the “Instituti Antonio Gramshi” (Antonio Gramsci Institute), dedicated to gramscian and marxist studies.

He has been active in various Albanian-language media, as a journalist or editor. He was a founder of the leftist Albanian weekly paper “Gazeta”. He has been working with different NGO-s, in programs fighting illiteracy in rural areas. He also worked as a translator of various authors, among which Brecht, Benjamin, Marcuse, Bourdieu and Zizek.