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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.

Longing for lost agency

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

Croatian philosopher Boris Buden speaks about post-socialist subjects as children of communism, warning that it is not a metaphor, but a symptom of an imagination in which transition to democracy as a radical reconstruction starts from scratch: ‘Eastern Europe after 1989 resembles a landscape of historical ruins that is inhabited only by children, immature people unable to organise their lives democratically without guidance from another.’

This image of post-socialist individuals as helpless, immature and dependent children resonates very often with the ways people in the former Yugoslav societies are approached from very different positions of power: by representatives on the ‘international community’, who see these societies as tabula rasa, a polygon to exercise all sorts of social and political experiments, as well as by new local elites, who place the responsibility for the disastrous economic situation on citizens themselves, accusing them for inability or unwillingness to adapt to the new, market-driven reality, which demands individual initiative and self-reliance. Very often, the reasons for this inability or unwillingness ‘to take care of oneself’ are found in the problematic legacy of socialism, when people lived believing that the state, or someone else, should and will take care of them.

Such view on socialism not only supports the rapid dismantling of the welfare state in the post-Yugoslav societies, it often serves as a handy explanation for all sorts of reactionary political attitudes found in this region from the 1990s onwards. The ‘children of communism’, the argument goes, not only need guidance, protection and supervision, but also strive for a strong, all-controlling leader who would take care of everything – an authoritative father figure which they had in Josip Broz Tito during Yugoslav socialism. In this light, any kind of nostalgia or positive attitude towards socialism is understood as a sign of moral weakness, irrationality and inability to find one’s way in the ongoing social and economic transformations. It is seen as a ‘result of a feeling of having lost out in the transition from communism to democracy,’ as political scientists Joakim Ekman and Jonas Linde put it.

But if we take the positive references of citizens of the post-Yugoslav societies more seriously, in line with what American anthropologist Dominic Boyer suggests, we will see that when people talk about the positive aspects of their socialist experiences it is not only about the lost safety net, social welfare and having someone to take care of everything. It is much more about a lost sense of agency and self-perception of being an actor in both one’s own life and in the broader economic and social processes. In contrast with what prevalent neoliberal and ‘transitional’ political discourses on socialism suggest, citizens perceived themselves as agents during socialism much more than today, when they feel incapable of transforming their desires and visions into action. In the case of post-socialist Serbia, Maja Petrović Šteger describes how her interviewees ‘would often state that the everyday facts of their lives made it hard for them to imagine themselves actively participating in remaking, or just in contesting, the political and economic fabric in contemporary Serbia.’

That is why rare and extraordinary events in which citizens manage to resume some degree of agency – such as the mass mobilisations for extending help and solidarity during the disastrous floods in the region in May 2014, or the citizens’ plenums as forms of direct democracy in Bosnia and Herzegovina – are abundant with references to the forms of social organisation and action that were characteristic of Yugoslav socialism.

Seen in this light, as longing for a lost agency, nostalgia for socialism is not a reactionary, irrational and pro-totalitarian sentiment, but a practice with a mobilising, legitimising, and even an emancipatory character. It is a reminder not only of the past, but also of the values necessary for imagining the future, such as both an intergenerational and a universal solidarity, responsibility, communality, the value of work as such, and perhaps, above all, a personal and a collective autonomy.