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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.