Part of the regular assembly “New authoritarian tendencies – a legacy of the past?“. Author: Vladimir Unkovski-Korica
In the years following the collapse of the Berlin Wall, the countries of the former Soviet Union, the Soviet bloc and Yugoslavia were subjected to a major experiment. Treated as a tabula rasa, these societies became a laboratory for neoliberalism. The recipe is now familiar to most of us: privatisation, liberal democracy, debt-driven export orientation, European integration… The question was not whether to apply these measures, but how much, at what pace, by which interest groups, using what kind of institutions. It soon became clear, however, that major divergences between countries were emerging, often unrelated to substantial policy differences. Thus, a new science began to emerge: how to explain these differences according to differing legacies, often legacies of Communism.
In the Balkans, and particularly Yugoslavia, the legacies of Byzantium and the Ottoman Empire came to the fore, but so too did the particular legacies of so-called ’communist ethno-federalism’, ’workers’ self-management’, ’the withering away of the state’, etc. What had been seen as sources of relative ’liberalism’ in the ’Communist’ world now turned to major disadvantages in terms of ’transition’. Thus weak states could not establish strong democratic governance, property rights and rule of law. Ethnic diversity initially slowed down the strengthening of democratic process or even derailed it as different groups tried to assert, often violently, national exclusivity to territorially granted rights. Welfarist instincts in the mass of the population prevented full economic liberalisation giving rise to populist and authoritarian leaders who craved power and disregarded due process.
Much of the wisdom therefore turns to the need for further external intervention to fix the problem. What is particularly necessary in the new orthodoxy is the need for the EU to use various sticks and carrots to lure elites and civil societies away from their recalcitrant ways, and often their flirtation with their age-old Great Power sponsors in Moscow or Istanbul, towards true democracy. If only the EU were tougher on bad leaders, more generous with good civil society initiatives, and more willing to expand quickly, then the sources of backwardness would be expunged, and the Balkans brought closer to Europe, as had occurred with East-Central Europe or the Baltic states. Perhaps this also explains why so many East-Central European and Baltic states ironically backed Germany in the recent struggle to make Greece accept the rules of the Eurozone or quit and become Balkan once more.
The trouble is precisely that, when we look up from the neoliberal textbook at the realities of Europe as a whole, what we see is that Europe itself is at odds with democracy and is ever more reminiscent of an undemocratic, post-modern Austria-Hungary, where the elites of the core countries and the bureaucracy they use to rule the empire, far from liberating peoples of national feelings, are in fact reinforcing old national divisions in new ways. Digging deeper, we even find that this European project has in fact been around for much longer than the last quarter of a century. Yugoslavia’s trade links with Germany and Italy were dominant through the twentieth century, not excluding the so-called Communist period. Yugoslavia’s dependency on American credits started as early as 1949, and its first of many IMF arrangements came in the mid-1960s. Several other bloc countries followed suit in the 1970s and 1980s as part of détente. European integration stretches back many decades.
Unsurprisingly, workers often rebelled against so-called workers’ states, Poland being the most famous example, but Yugoslavia following close behind in the number of strikes in the 1980s. As modernisation resembled in many ways what had gone on in the West too, workers popularly joked that, in capitalism, man exploits man, but in communism, it is the other way around. Now another transition-era joke appears ever more pertinent: that what the communists had told us about communism had all turned out to be false, but what they had told us about capitalism is coming true. It should be unsurprising that many communist parties became proponents of neoliberal transformation, only to be electorally eclipsed since. This is again not unlike the parties of the centre-left in Western Europe, like Greece’s PASOK. The authoritarianism that grew up with corportatist responses* to Europe’s failures is therefore only tangentially a legacy of ‘Communism’ – or its failure, and the popular belief that there is no alternative. As new generations enter the political arena, they come to realise that an alternative is necessary, since capitalism works against democracy, not just in Greece or Spain, but also in Macedonia and Slovenia. They may even realise that Europe means austerity and nationalism, while the Balkans can mean solidarity and diversity. New generations do not need to go backwards to a past that is widely discredited, though for more complex reasons than mainstream commentators would have it. Instead, they can recover forgotten forms of resistance to previous authoritarian rounds of European integration before European integration. And they can move forward in confidence, towards the legacies of ‘post-communism’: the rebirth of an authentic left in opposition to capitalism and the overdue death of the myth of Europe.
* corportatism, rooted in the Latin word corpus, meaning body, refers to the sociopolitical organisation and control of a society by large interest groups.