Authoritarian tendencies in the region between “then” and “now”: the lacking visibility of materiality of regional authoritarianism

Part of the regular assembly “New authoritarian tendencies – a legacy of the past?“. Author: Danijela Majstorović

When thinking about authoritarian tendencies in the Balkans, one inevitably envisages the regional ‘strongmen’, who, despite their intrinsic differences, will here for a moment be thought of as amalgamated. One thinks of them as pandering to the populist temptation, living luxurious lives and doing shady business without being accountable to the public, and some liberal democratic telos, which, if reached, will be a cure for it. Ascribing these tendencies to the socialist, one-party Yugoslav past is a mistake that too easily dismisses not only the socialist political imaginary as an important repository of reflexive nostalgia and a way of imagining otherwise but also gravely obfuscates the material, politico-economic aspects of the current political elites in the region, their coming to power, and their cold and calculated interest to do anything it takes to remain in power. It also runs contrary to the truth on the ground.

Any psychologising on authoritarianism or its reduction to ‘a history that repeats’ without accounting for the context is deeply problematic because it lacks the concrete materiality that can be best explained through a combination of political economy analysis and critique of ideology. What secures the power of ethno-nationalist elites, and Izetbegović’s or Dodik’s power, to use the Bosnian-Herzegovinian example, is not their authoritarianism, but the Dayton Peace Agreement. It did bring peace to BiH but it also, because of its complex power-sharing mechanism, created a state of exception in which disorder constantly need to be managed, both domestically and internationally. Notwithstanding some international politicians’ profiting off of Bosnia, the local oligarchs have kept and expanded their property, acquired both through the combat and shadow economy, by being exempt from the state’s criminal code and answerable to no one, solely on the basis of Dayton.

During the first decade after Dayton, resources were redistributed from publically-owned to state-owned or dominant party-owned. The years between 2006-2014, saw a weakened international community influence while the ethno-nationalist elites influence, based on shady privatisations of strategic enterprises, grew stronger. Simultaneously, it was coupled by the exclusionary, nationalist, proto-patriarchal rhetoric as it helped obfuscate the postwar elites coming to money during the war and transition hiding the capitalist motivation behind the war, which was to either destroy or privatise the public property and the commons, but also commonly shared pasts, traumas, economies and futures.

Additionally, the war and privatisation devastated former industrial giants as well as smaller enterprises stripping the BiH workers of their ownership over their enterprises and depriving them of their basic economic abilities through mass layoffs. In most ‘post-conflict reconstruction’ plans for BiH, privatisation was a key component of market reform without even considering the social consequences. Both the international community and the local elites worked hard to securely tether the transition to capitalism and to obliterate any memory of the existing socialism. During these years, the authoritarianism of the local ethno-nationalist elites grew stronger and more entrenched, which was relatively easy given the lack of more democratic action and civic participation in public life. All this time, it looked as the war between different ethnic groups was still discursively on as after 20 years of peace there was almost no consensus on the past and no serious questioning of what ever happened to the commons.

The painful awakening in February 2014 in BiH and in May 2015 in Macedonia, visible in the protests and plenums managed at least temporarily to resist the entrenched privatisation and war-fuelled nationalism. This was no longer ‘about Dayton’ as protesters for a moment halted their own complicity and participation in the ethno-partocracy and clientelism emerging as indignant subjects who in insecure times insisted on a form of direct democracy, partly through violence and partly through people’s ability to self-organise realising the failing State. Workers of Tuzla’s detergent factory Dita, for instance, protested for years and even hid their means of production hoping for a moment when they would start using it again to make and sell detergent and be able to live off of their work.

In the wake of all these changes, we saw authoritarian tendencies deeply shaken. Only this time, it was not because of some Western-learned democratisation practice aiming at countering the former socialist ideological rut. It was not because the complex power-sharing suddenly worked. It was after the failed state-socialism of Yugoslavia, the vestiges of which crumbled in the war. It was after our traumas and economies could no longer be silenced and it was in spite of the nationalism that replaced the previously known brotherhood and unity. I hope it was a lesson learned running counter to everything we have known after the 1990s war – that the only way to counter the authoritarianism of the few was to denounce their riches and capillary governmentality-demanding socialism forevermore.

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