Tag Archives: discourse


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

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.

“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.