Tag Archives: authoritarianism

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New authoritarian tendencies – a legacy of the past?

Political parties that serve as employment agencies and hence engender and perpetuate entrenched corruption and clientelism, weak state institutions, political control over the media, rampant inequality, dismantling of the welfare state. The ‘authoritarian temptation’ proved too big for most of the new post-Yugoslav elites to resist. While across the political spectrum, to varying degrees, there have been prominent tendencies of portraying the socialist past as a deviation and essentially criminalising it, neglecting it or purposefully erasing it from the public space and public history/memory, there has been an uncritical appropriation in intellectual and media discourse of a linear, simplistic narrative – common in the post-communist states of Central and Eastern Europe – ascribing all contemporary negative phenomena to the ‘totalitarian’ socialist past.

The Yugoslav successor states have not been immune to what can be termed nesting anti-communism. In Macedonia, all the while insisting on the undemocratic nature of the socialist ‘regime’, the ruling political elite engineered (through a highly controversial Lustration Law, the establishment of a Museum to the victims of communism and the deliberate destruction of the socialist/modernist architectural legacy in the capital) a hegemonic official memory regime which in many ways mirrors the worst practices of the system they seek to demonise. Nevertheless, the question of whether and to what extent the new authoritarian political culture in the region is a legacy of the one-party, socialist past is worth asking.

Generally, and in the Macedonian case more specifically, ascribing the blame for contemporary ills and for a 21st century authoritarianism to Tito, his comrades, or ‘communism’ is nothing but an easy way of self-vindication for the appallingly corrupt and irresponsibly elites. What is shocking is that in some crucial aspects, Macedonia in 2015 is doing far worse that it did 40 years ago. The income inequality (Gini) index rose from 28.1 in 1998 to 43.6; almost a third of the population lives below the poverty line; the country plummeted from 34th in 2009 to 117th place in 2015 in the World Press Freedom Index; around a quarter of the population emigrated abroad; and it has become impossible to find employment without connections and party membership (contrary to popular opinion that even in socialist Yugoslavia Party membership was crucial, as a matter of fact, the League of Communist of Yugoslavia for most of its existence had around 1 million members).

Pointing out some of the positive features of the socialist period does not imply an uncritical glorification or idealisation of that system; it is above all an attempt to emphasise the fact that what was positive in it (the emancipatory practices, workers’ rights, social protection and solidarity, equality, social mobility, relative meritocracy, active foreign policy and highly competent diplomacy) has been severely diminished or completely destroyed, while that which was negative (political authoritarianism, personality cult, lack of freedom of speech) has been amplified and ‘perfected’. Hence, Nancy Fraser’s vision of ‘another “postsocialism”’ – ‘one that incorporates, rather than repudiates, the best of socialism’ – still seems pertinent.

This assembly brings four perspectives that zero in on the post-Yugoslav space:

Assembly editor: Ljubica Spaskovska

Photo: Ljubica Spaskovska

 

Forwards to the legacies of ‘post-communism’ in the Balkans!

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.

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.

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.

Zasedanie_populizam

Regular assembly: Symbolic elements of the Macedonian authoritarian populism

In the midst of the wire taping affair that showed the real face of the authoritarian and corrupt governing elite in Macedonia, it remains challenging to understand why there is lack of any bigger public dissatisfaction and a large number of citizens still appear to believe the ruling elite’s side of the story. Some of the reasons can definitely be found in the clientelistic system of ‘carrot and stick’ which forces many people to support the ruling party, as a guarantor of their existence and well-being. Additionally, the restricted access to objective information in a sphere dominated by pro-government media outlets, which was already elaborated on in the assembly on media (non-)freedom, also contributes to this. Equally importantly, some of the reasons for the still present support can be found in the symbolic elements of the Macedonian authoritarian populism employed by the ruling party VMRO-DMPNE.

To that end, this assembly discusses several different social constructs that are complementary to each other and jointly contribute to the creation of the populist myth around VMRO–DMPNE and its leader Nikola Gruevski. The five presented analyses focus on the manipulations with the narrative, self-identification, history, gender and the fear of enemies that generate inert and uncritical electorate with collectivist and illiberal attitudes that seriously undermine the core values of liberal democracy:

 

Assembly co-ordinator: Borjan Gjuzelov

Photo: Republika

The rule of the people and (non-)democracy in populist discourse

Part of the virtual assembly “Symbolic elements of the Macedonian authoritarian populism”. Author: Ljupcho Petkovski

Macedonian Prime Minister Gruevski and his policies intended to please the voters by buying their support are usually labelled as populist by his political opponents and the media. This kind of actions can be, however, better described as clientelism, demagogy or opportunism. Needless to say, Gruevski is a populist, yet for reasons different than the arguments usually put in place. Gruevski and VMRO-DPMNE are populist because they portray and construct Macedonian social and political reality as if the society was composed of two irreconcilable camps – the People (narodot) versus the alienated political, intellectual and economic elites of the past. The sole representative of the people, of course, is Gruevski himself. Both the people and the enemy are slippery categories rather than fixed terms which makes them performative rather than descriptive concepts.

Populist discourses have a lot to do with redefining empty signifiers – the key symbols that serve as signifiers of the cleavages that exist in societies. They can articulate any ideology, both progressive left-wing and conservative far-right. The function of populist discourses is to express revolt, passion and some fundamentally irrepresentable, but necessary symbols that keep societies together, such as justice, democracy, freedom, etc.

Populist discourses are opposed to more administrative, inclusive and syntagmatic discourses, which Ernesto Laclau calls logic of difference. The logic of difference is the dominant and only legitimate way of representing society in the current post-democratic and post-political zeitgeist of late liberalism, and it is based on the assumption that no social cleavages exist in modern societies, or in other words, that we live in reconciled societies, in which antagonisms from the past are obsolete. Populism is a kind of a reminder that history has not (yet) ended.

What is the problem with this kind of representation from the point of view of an individual whose understanding of democracy is influenced by liberal symbolic framework? If democracy is about the rule of the people – as the very etymology of the term suggests – why are we afraid of populism? Democracy as we know it and against which we judge whether a certain political system or society is democratic is actually a liberal democracy. In liberal democracies, the will of the majority (the people) is limited in a number of important ways through institutions, such as constitutional courts and judiciary, which are responsible for maintaining the system of checks and balances guaranteeing the protection of individual rights and liberties. In the past several decades, the liberal, or the administrative component of democracy was additionally boosted by the rise of technocratic decision-making bodies.

Populists are by rule hostile to the limitations posed by liberal principles, and very often their politics is expressed as a democratic iliberalism. This is the case with Gruevski– his people are portrayed as the final arbiter in any societal dispute, even the legal ones. In other words, as long as the people support a certain policy or political action of his, it is of secondary consideration whether these deeds are illegal and immoral. Furthermore, in populist discourses only two, mutually exclusive, subject positions are portrayed as being legitimate – one is being part of the people, which is depicted as having a personality with characteristics that is aligned with the allegedly dominant culture of society, and the other one is being part of the hostile Other, which is described as something that cannot be a legitimate part of the society (traitors, enemies of the state, sorosoids – conspiracy theorising is very much present in populist discourses ). This is why in the symbolic framework of Macedonian populism there is no place for autonomy of political demands –dissenting voices coming from rather heterogeneous civil society groups are automatically described as being instigated by some alleged centers of power and discredited as being unauthentic.

Finally, populism emancipates (fervent opponents of populism would say distorts) the meanings of empty signifiers that express the (impossible) unity of society. Democracy in populist discourses is reinterpreted and has a different meaning than its “normal”, liberal democratic meaning.

Narrative control of the public discourse: Identification as a means for populism

Part of the virtual assembly “Symbolic elements of the Macedonian authoritarian populism”. Author: Misha Popovikj

To paraphrase a thought in Dune: ‘the one who controls the narrative, controls politics.’ National narratives are an integral part of the processes through which political elites are legitimised. In order to avoid using identity as a fixed category, I will use identification as it underlines the same concept as a process of constant (re)telling of national imagination.

Maintaining control over the process of narrating the nation is the key in understanding Macedonian politics. Building on Rogers Brubaker, we can view the processes of national identification as a product of network interactions between different stakeholders in the society.

Lately, this product is under serious influence of the vector called VMRO-DPMNE. Coming from the counterpoint of the socialist narrative about Macedonia, the political elite of VMRO-DPMNE had an interest to change the foundations of the Macedonian national imagination. However, the goal was not mending a historical injustice, but putting to use the national imagination in order to secure single ownership over two basic pillars of the national imagination: the ways the individual imagines herself and how she imagines the nation.

In its doctrine, VMRO-DPMNE writes about the real men. By re-conceptualising the Macedonian archetype, they succeeded in creating an image of the Macedonian as a religious and a family oriented person, who, with the help of these two communities and within the national belonging, finds the place in the world. Moreover, the doctrine reaffirms the position that the nation is the space where a person can act. In the same doctrine, personal freedom as a value behind which the party stands is firmly connected with the national freedom. In this way, the naval cord between the mother (the nation) and the child (the individual) is conceptualised using one of the fundamental values of contemporary society – freedom.

The second pillar of the narrative control over Macedonian politics is the wider national imaginary. The basis here is the (re)construction of the national historical mythology, and the subset is the name issue. An obvious product of this is Skopje 2014. In his book ‘Antique Present’, building on the theoretical basis of multiple authors (among which A.D. Smith), Anastas Vangeli demonstrates that the mythology behind the identity conflict with Greece is instrumentalised in more than one way. One which stands out is using this political mythology to induce escapism from contemporary issues as the current problems are put against the imagined Golden age. In that sense, Skopje 2014 is both an injustice and a monument to the imagined injustice – the injustice that we were not part of Europe in the past, and the same has been taken away in the present as well as in the future.

It is exactly the narrative of injustice, injustice towards Macedonia and injustice towards the real men, which brews the contemporary Macedonian populism. The deprived Golden age, historical rights and the European status become the central topic of Macedonian politics. The public political discourse is put on these tracks which drive all other topics or conflicting narratives centrifugally towards the margins of the public debate.

And the owner of these topics is the ruling party and any attempt at confrontation is not a level playing field game. By using the sentiments of injustice, VMRO-DPMNE has become the sole symbolic protector of what is Macedonian and of the real Macedonian.

“Historical injustice” as a tool in the hands of the populist and authoritarian government: Souvenirs from the myth-making museum dungeons

Part of the virtual assembly “Symbolic elements of the Macedonian authoritarian populism”. Author: Darko Stojanov

In the literature on historical myths in the Balkans, one can find Macedonia in the debates dealing with three particular myths: the myth of the eternal sacrifice, the myth of the centuries long political continuity, and, more recently, the myth of ancient origin. I shall briefly discuss the first one – the myth of victimisation.

This myth is founded upon the idea of historical injustice. In academic historiography the concept of historical injustice has a precisely defined meaning in the context of the 20th century military conflicts, and in that sense we find it in international debates on wars and war reparations. Apart from this meaning, the term can be found in nationalistic discourses as well, albeit with a loosely defined meaning. In the last few decades the “historical injustice“ was a central part of the political and intellectual discourses in the Balkans, and played an important role in the bloody wars during the fall of Yugoslavia. Every single country in the region believes that it is a victim of some historical wrongdoing. In Macedonia, the nationalistic understanding of “historical injustice” is still a leitmotif in the populist rhetorics of the ruling party. The “burden of history” is being imposed upon the citizens through political speeches, history textbooks, historiography, documentaries, as well as through public space.

In that context, I was recently fascinated by one interesting case. Last year, in the presence of the political establishment, the Museum of the Macedonian Struggle in Skopje solemnly promoted its second exhibition. By that time, as a historian interested in the contemporary perceptions of the past, I had already visited and analysed the museum’s main exhibition twice, and I believed that nothing could surprise me anymore (in terms of nationalism). Yet … During the 20-minute horror I found myself face to face with an understanding of history that one encounters only while researching long gone regimes and ideologies. In a claustrophobically tight and dark space, decorated with severed heads stuck on poles, mutilated bodies and torture devices, accompanied by constant screams of tortured patriots and their wives or mothers, Ottoman, Bulgarian and Serbian (or perhaps communist) torturers sadistically brought great pain to their Macedonian victims, involving even the visitors in the acting.

I saw this museum/exhibition as a myth-making factory, as a powerful visualisation of the nationalistic rhetoric of blood. A place where the historical injustice turns into myth, which then turns into propaganda. The myth of victimisation, arising from the idea or the feeling of historical injustice, is considered to be one of the most dangerous historical political myths. Its inflammable potential lies in its capacity to touch the deepest human emotions of fear and insecurity. It implies a particularly strong and unchangeable image of the Other, as well as a feeling of moral superiority. Combined, these two components can eventually lead to aggression.

The museum is not only a depiction of a dark past, it is also a call for a dark future. One leaves the place feeling anger towards people which do not exist, and bearing a trauma from events that he/she never experienced. Despite its irrationality, this phenomenon is a powerful tool in the hands of the government. The accentuation of the history of suffering, of the myth of victimisation, is quite effective in the mobilisation of the citizens, through the manipulation of the atavistic emotions of the crowd. The ultimate purpose of this kind of a museum is the creation of a mental landscape inhabited by all the archenemies of the nation, in which the visitor becomes a victim of their evil intentions. This resonates well with one of the main tools of the government today – the continuos pointing to (foreign) enemies and (domestic) spies, dividing the citizens into patriots and traitors. Briefly, this story shows how a populist and authoritarian regime can employ the so-called “usable past” in its exercise of power. In certain contexts, the insistence on victimisation, i.e. on “historical injustice” is in fact a mobilisation, a call to uniformity and blind obedience to the Leader and the Party.

Women in Macedonian macho–populism

Part of the virtual assembly “Symbolic elements of the Macedonian authoritarian populism”. Author: Ana Vasileva

Similarly to most of the regimes striving towards totalitarianism, in which the power is concentrated in the hands of a very limited number of people (or shall I say – straight, privileged white males), the Macedonian society largely builds its positions of power based on the dichotomy man – woman, defined in line with the traditional values.

To a large extent, the macho-populism of the Government is based on the process of identification with the “pure Macedonian” as a category that the majority of the voters belongs to and which is primarily defined by what it is not: non-Muslim, non-homosexual, non-female. Understandably, on a symbolic level, all the remaining categories become undesirable, or secondary in the least. Consequently, the woman, indispensible due to her reproductive role in a society striving for cheap workforce and political party soldiers, is reduced to a necessary evil, unlike the other sexual, ethnic, ideological minorities which are barely tolerated. The rare kitschy sculptures and monuments representing women, overshadowed by the proud and bloodthirsty warriors that have conquered our public spaces, are either mothers and pregnant women, or labelled by the suspicious title of “cock-teaser”, which adequately reflects the public perception of the woman’s role in society today. The Government’s campaigns for a higher birth rate and against the right to choose constitute a direct intrusion into the woman’s body, the value of which is asserted by its capability and productivity in the process of creating new voters for the party.

The situation in the political life is consistent with the one on social level. Despite the Law on Equal Opportunities from 2006 which introduced a quota of mandatory 30 percent of women in Parliament, the typical female members of Parliament in Macedonia have not managed to escape the shadow of the patriarchal imperative of the “obedient daughter”. Appallingly allowing for laws which blatantly violate the women’s right to choose to get on the agenda at all, the women in Parliament have not shown the political maturity to preserve the women’s rights that already were under siege, let alone make the essential step forward towards improvement of the situation of underprivileged women across the country. Apart from this, despite the huge public support against the gender-based violence and the awareness-raising campaigns, in practice we are faced with an inert and inefficient institutional system which offers absolutely no protection and is light years away from providing the possibility of economic support and social reintegration of victims into society.

Tied to the private sphere, women are traditionally left with the wide field of domesticity to prove their talent in, through the various cake-fairs, pie-fairs and other food-fairs where they exert their obedience creatively sprucing up their works with decorations in honor of the “Leader”. Those women with higher ambitions, on the other hand, in accordance with the macho-patriarchal social ideology, are left with the possibility of catering to male authorities (despite the real or hypothetical high professional qualifications) as the most easily accessible and most desirable option for advancement. We also have the women who take on the traditional “male” model of behaviour, playing the role of strict “iron ladies”, who do not differ from their male colleagues in any way, and even surpass them in their cruelness.

It can be concluded that women in macho-populism remain tied to the stereotypical notions of femininity in its most rudimentary form. Limited with the notions of “decent” appearance and “ladylike” conduct, burdened with a line of laws and campaigns, we remain in limbo, torn between the imposed expectations and the inner drive for liberation and self-actualisation.

“Enemies” as fundamentals of the Macedonian populism

Part of the virtual assembly “Symbolic elements of the Macedonian authoritarian populism”. Author: Borjan Gjuzelov

In 2009, the Macedonian ruling party VMRO–DMPNE addressed its membership through an open letter announcing that they need to be prepared for “the final battle against the transition politicians.” This was one of the first steps in the shaping of the discourse of a fight against the enemies of Macedonia, which had began earlier that year with the violent counter-protest against the Architecture students and the aggressive rhetoric of several popular pro-governmental journalists. In the period that followed, the Macedonian public discourse was full of hate speech against alleged domestic and foreign enemies, traitors, mercenaries, non-Macedonians, sorosoids, faggots, heretics, etc. Today, even the Prime Minister Gruevski himself publicly proclaims that Macedonia is seriously in danger of the joint threat of foreign secret services and domestic ‘traitors’ from the opposition.

Such discourse is typical for populist regimes that build up their support on the basis of conflict between the People as ‘us’ and the enemies as ‘them’. These two terms (the People and the enemies) are actually fictive language constructs, that play the role of empty signifiers because their meaning varies depending to the daily political interests of the populist government. According to Ernesto Laclau, populism simplifies the political with a symbolic division between the folk (the People), that almost always has the role of a victim and everything else as the Other. In the Macedonian context, the Other is the opposition, the ethnic Albanian minority, Greece, Europe, America, etc. In this context, the fight against the Other (i.e. the enemy), is the basic source of legitimacy for the populist leaders. Ironically, the enemy is actually the main marker of their political agenda for preservation of the national uniqueness from the ‘danger’ that comes with the enemy. Accordingly, the stronger the alleged enemy appears to be, the tenser the feeling of conspiracy and vulnerability among the masses is, and therefore the need for some false unity in order to prevent the danger is ever more pressing.

All of this leads to a state of exception, where the primary place is taken up by the narrative of securitisation of ‘us’ versus ‘them’. This state of exception tends to extrude all the other political issues out of the public discourse. Therefore, the public is defocused from the possible government’s unsuccessful policies and corruption affairs, while the room for any meaningful political dialogue is significantly diminished. On the other hand, the politics of protection of ‘us’ versus ‘them’ generates a real danger of destabilisation and conflict. Namely, the state of exception creates emotions of fear, hate, and xenophobia among the masses and leads to a non-civic mobilisation of a militant character that directly affects the public safety in a society.

The emotional manifestations of fear and hate, which emerge from the discourse of internal and external enemies, bring out the lowest passions of the individual and transform the citizens into a crowd, whose main connecting tissue is the provincial intolerance of anything individual and different. In that context there is no room for any critical re-evaluation of the truth, or any rational individualistic action. To the contrary, everything is subverted into the uniform submission to the narrative of protection of ‘us’ against ‘them’, whose sovereign authority is the authoritarian leader with its feigned protective role.