New authoritarianism and new struggles against ‘old demons’

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

A quarter of a century after the fall of the Berlin Wall, authoritarian and semi-authoritarian tendencies and practices remain very much present in the post-Yugoslav states and even wider. Scholars and local commentators attribute this either to the lack of a liberal democratic tradition, in particular when it comes to civil society, the long lasting legacy of communism or, worse, revert to the well-known self-orientalising tendency that sees the region incapable of modern state-building and democratisation. Although causes of the present phenomenon of limited democratisation are multiple and complex, this is often seen through the lens of historical determinism in general, and communist legacy in particular.

Irrespective of the fact that one cannot dismiss half of century of communist rule in the analysis of the current situation, it nevertheless does not suffice. Moreover, it represents an oversimplified view of the past and present situation and the determining socio-economic factors. The direct correlation that is often built between the pervious system and current (semi) authoritarian regimes is misleading for a number of reasons. Firstly, this view is mostly embraced by right wing, anti-communist and nationalist parties and their affiliates whose raison d’être has become opposition to ideological ‘other’, i.e. socialist Yugoslavia, the League of Communists of Yugoslavia (LCY) and its respective successor parties. As such, their discourse implies that what we have today is only a different version of the old party system and its institutions. However, in practice, across the post-Yugoslav political space, anti-communist and right wing parties have particularly embodied authoritarian tendencies.

Secondly, and most importantly, today’s political systems in the region often display worse tendencies of monopolisation and centralisation than in the socialist period. For the most part, post-Yugoslav countries have established a façade of institutional democracy. With the exception of Slovenia and to a certain extent Croatia, the other states are what Lucan Way and Steven Levitsky (2010) defined as ‘competitive authoritarian regimes’, i.e. civilian regimes in which formal democratic institutions exist and are widely viewed as the primary means of gaining power, but in which incumbents’ abuse of the state places them at a significant advantage vis-à-vis their opponents. Mostly nationalist right wing parties and ‘strongmen’ have managed to create an illusion of multi-party democracy at the local and national levels while effectively stripping elections of efficacy. Due to state-capture, media control, vote buying, fragmentation of opposition they have violated one of the key principles of democracy – unpredictability of the electoral process and change of power. Moreover, monopolisation of power by the current tiny economic, political and often criminal elites in the region is far wider and deeper than in socialism. Clearly, in socialism there were no multi-party elections, but the social, political and economic institutional setting was in many respects far more inclusive, decentralised and fair.

Ultimately, this leads to a wider paradox related to post-communism. On the eve of major systemic changes in the late 1980s, anti-communist forces in Yugoslavia promised democratisation and freedom, to be installed through free multi-party elections, and economic prosperity to be realised through liberal economic reforms and privatization. 25 years down the road, none of these promises have been materialised. Open and democratic institutions exist only on paper; civil society is reduced to a handful of foreign-funded NGOs; the gap between a tiny minority of rich people and a struggling majority increases constantly. At the centre of all this is the new ‘post-communist’ type of party that has its members and voters in public institutions, media, economic enterprises, police, army, diplomatic service, schools and universities. In a word, the post-communist elites brought neither democratisation nor economic progress. The only real change is in the economic sphere with the introduction of economic policies of privatisation and deregulation, championed by the ‘New Right’ in the 1980s. But this is not something right-wing parties can be proud of. Ironically, China’s and Vietnam’s Communist Parties have proven even more capable of managing state capitalist economies than right-wing parties in post-Yugoslav multi-party systems.

This pattern of all-powerful and omnipresent parties than run competitive authoritarian regimes is present throughout the region, with different degrees and nuances. As regards Kosovo, the most complex and atypical post-Yugoslav state, both the post-1989 ‘Kosovar Alternative’ led by LDK (Democratic League of Kosovo) and Ibrahim Rugova and the Kosovo Liberation Army (UÇK) and its successor party PDK (Democratic Party of Kosovo) had a clear anti-Yugoslav and anti-communist attitude. Due to Kosovo’s unique history in Yugoslavia as well as developments in the late 1980s, socialist Yugoslavia, Serbia and communism came to be seen almost as synonymous. LDK emerged as a popular and national movement that opposed both a Yugoslav state that does not treat Kosovo equally and communism in the name of Democracy, Freedom and Independence. Yet, irrespective of its unmatched restraint and commitment to peaceful resistance, in practice it demonstrated a rather authoritarian tendency to control the whole Kosovo Albanian ‘parallel system’ in the 1990s. Although its power was very limited under the total Serbian police and military control, it was not very tolerant to dissenting voices from inside. Similarly, UÇK’s and then later on PDK’s leadership has shown increasing tendencies of controlling political, public and economic institutions.

Nonetheless, state-capture and authoritarianism in Kosovo is less consolidated than in countries like Macedonia, Serbia or Montenegro. However, this does not stem from the open-mindedness and commitment to democratic values of Kosovo’s present politicians. Rather, it is a result of international supervision, a fragmented political scene and a proportional representation electoral system (with one constituency).

In sum, current authoritarian regimes do not stem directly from the communist past. Rather, they are a product of a failed democratisation process that brought national conflicts, economic and social stagnation and a new type of political parties that have managed to capture the state while projecting an illusion of a multi-party democracy.

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