Tag Archives: populism


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.