Europe’s blind spot: the streets rising up against local autocrats

By Ana Maria Luca | Bucharest

In mid-February thousands of opposition supporters clashed with police in an anti-government rally against Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama’s cabinet, demanding its resignation and early elections. Although Albania is set to start its accession negotiations with the European Union, Rama’s rule has backtracked in terms of democracy and the fight against corruption and organised crime.

For weeks in a row, thousands of demonstrators have been marching in the Serbian capital of Belgrade to voice their anger at corruption and the rule of President Aleksandar Vučić, who they believe is becoming increasingly autocratic.

In Montenegro, which has been getting the praise as the frontrunner for the EU integration – as elusive as that might seem considering the current state of affairs in Brussels – ‘dissatisfied citizens’ also took to the streets in February to demand the resignation of President Milo Djukanović, who has been in power for nearly 30 years.

Despite getting less international spotlight, people have been taking to the streets in Banja Luka, Republika Srpska, for almost a year.
The alleged cover-up of an young man’s apparent murder in April 2018 has triggered a long series of protests against corruption in the administration of Bosnian Serb nationalist leader Milorad Dodik.

North Macedonia has already been through its wave of turmoil in 2015-2017, with protests against the government of the then PM Nikola Gruevski. In 2018, Gruevski was sentenced to prison for corruption, but he vanished right before incarceration and reappeared in Budapest, where no-one, the EU included, has dared to bother him.

Across the Western Balkans, people have been voicing the anger they gathered in the past two or three decades, while their countries have seen little progress. This burst is their cry for help before they give up and leave.

But is this some ‘Balkan Spring’? Most likely not. It is not necessarily state control or autocrats that they are trying to fight. Vučić, Djukanović, Rama, Dodik, Gruevski
and their increasingly authoritarian policies, their grip on the media, have just been the triggers for the street movements.

Across the Western Balkans, people have been voicing the anger they gathered in the past two or three decades, while their countries have seen little progress. This burst is their cry for help before they give up and leave.

For what these young Serbians, Montenegrins, Macedonians, Albanians and Bosnians want is not just to oust one leader. They want to expose and change the deeply rooted system that has bred and groomed autocrats in recent times. But consolidated autocracies are just one effect of a generalised structural cause.

Overlooking reforms of essence

If one looks at the political organisation in the Balkans, they might think that the reforms have worked: political parties have changed, some factions have died out and new ones emerged, governments changed, new institutions have appeared, everybody talks about democracy, European integration, reforms, stability.

For years, the governments in all the Western Balkan countries have set up democratic institutions, organised mostly free elections, dissent has been allowed, and everything seemed to be going in the right direction. The EU opened negotiations with Serbia and Montenegro, was ready to start talking about it with Macedonia and Albania, and all that seemed unwell in the region was the remnants of ethnic conflicts and territorial disputes such as the one between Belgrade and Prishtina, as well as the name conflict between Skopje and Athens. The EU chose to focus on these political aspects because they were simply more visible.

But this is where the shortcomings of this political analysis lay: a deeper look at the political ethnography of these countries might paint a completely different picture. The state is not just the institutions, but also the people.

Some people in the Western Balkans have been taking to the streets, and despite changes in government in some places, they remain utterly unhappy with their lives and no-one seems to look at exactly why.

The reason that anyone in the Balkans will tell those who ask is that reforms have been done ‘for show’, and not ‘for real’. Political leaders and their clusters of support have simply adapted and found a new approach to preserving the same old patron/client system under the pretence of building democratic institutions. Nikola Gruevski’s escape from Macedonia in November 2018 is the most recent example: underlings who still hold public office in the country are the ones who made it possible for him to cross the border.

Sure, the institutions are real, but they have been infiltrated by the patron/client networks which competed for power. And that is the ‘Balkan mafia’– a large number of politicians who get rich when they come to power, and tend to not let go of it. Anyone in the region can write books about it.

A social structure that survived

After the wars, the Balkans seemed to attract international attention because of a rise of increasingly autocratic or nationalistic leaders. The fear that the region might fall back into turmoil survives among the international political elites and decision-makers.

But all these politicians are the result of social and political practices cultivated by centuries of colonial rule by the Ottoman Empire, an agrarian patron/client system which during Communism adapted to different means of production, and which survived and was even boosted by ethnic conflicts and political turmoil in the 1990s and afterwards. In Kosovo, for instance, where unemployment is as high as 30 percent, politicians are the richest people in the country, and can afford to hire personal drivers and bodyguards without being questioned on where the money comes from. Companies that wish to survive know they need a politician’s backing to receive contracts and repay the favour with millions of dollars. The model is the same in other Balkan states, including Albania, Macedonia, Serbia and Montenegro.

What we call corruption is, in fact, the same agrarian, pyramidal patron/client system that now works so well at the political level: the landlords are now top politicians, and their clients are local politicians or businessmen who adhere to a pyramid in order to ensure the survival of their business. The smaller patrons control networks of people through contracts with the state or jobs in administration, while the members of the network owe the patron favours and votes.

Most ruling parties in the region are run this way: the top politicians channel state funds to the local administration members loyal to their party, while they tweak public tenders to allow loyal companies to thrive. People adhere to these networks because they need jobs, so they give up their votes in exchange for the security of tomorrow’s meal.

Removing a top politician, trying and sentencing him to prison –as in the case of Gruevski in Macedonia – might lead to a glorious nowhere. The network, which is already deeply rooted in the state administration, will even allow him to escape the country. Later on, he will be replaced with a different man. Patrons in the Balkans are not always politicians; they can be businesspeople who like to wield power from the shadows, where the risk of compromising themselves is much lower. But the system works the same nonetheless.

It is hardly rocket science to see why people adhere to this type of social order: partly it is out of fear of confronting the octopus, partly because it is much simpler and comfortable to fall in line than to oppose a huge force. If you fight a giant like this, you are most likely not going to be a hero like David, but the village fool.

This is nothing new in the world. The Balkans and, by extension, Eastern Europe, are not that special. Former colonies in South-East Asia, such as Indonesia, Malaysia or Vietnam have employed this type of patron/client politics for decades.

These clusters of patrons and clients might differ from one region to another, or from one country to another through local traditions. But the essence is the same: removing the top patrons does not solve the problem, the system will fight back, it will replace them and it will survive. In Bosnia, Bakir Izetbegović is in his own way a patron with a pool of loyal followers. He served as the Bosniak member of the tripartite presidency during 2010-2018, but during last year’s elections he decided to let his deputy, Šefik Džaferović, run in his place and the latter won the elections. Izetbegović’s followers simply followed the will of the patron.

Why drivers of change need to be locally engaged

With no support from outside, faced with many of their fellow citizens obeying and accepting the patron/client system for fear that they will be left to perish without the network’s backing, they will either choose to exit or to become part of the system.

Most, as seen in the recent statistics on emigration from the Balkans, choose the opportunity to exit. The young and educated leave these countries and settle somewhere else, sending money to the families they left at home.

And that is why this recent burst of anti- corruption protests is a miracle that needs encouragement and support.

In some circles, migration of human capital is seen as a driver of change and development: the remittances boost economies and, when the migrant workers and specialists come back to their home countries, they set up new businesses and push for progress. But, in fact, the theory has a blind spot: this push for progress by the returnees – if they ever return – will be much more difficult, after their remittances have fed the economy of the patron/client system and the implicit corruption.

Reforms have been done ‘for show’, and not ‘for real’. Politi- cal leaders and their clusters of support have simply adapted and found a new approach to pre- serving the same old patron/cli- ent system under the pretence of building democratic institutions.

The gap between the returnees who are supposed to be drivers of change, and the people who stayed behind and survived the patron/client system, will grow and will divide society.

This has not happened in the Western Balkans yet, where countries are smaller and migration has not divided society the way it did in neighbouring Romania or Bulgaria (the latter lost 1.5-2 million out of its 7 million population, which as a percentage is worse than Romania), for instance. But the lesson to be drawn from these countries’ experience with the brain drain is that the EU’s policies in terms of its approach to development are flawed.

In recent years, Brussels has been focused on big political projects which are almost impossible to achieve, such as reaching a deal between Serbia and Kosovo. It would be a great achievement, a deal indeed, but a deeply rooted ethnic conflict is difficult to solve through politics alone without making any efforts at the grassroots level. Meanwhile, reforms and development have been stalled. Serbians concerned by Vučić’s increasingly authoritarian policies are taking to the streets. Prishtina boxed itself into a corner by imposing tariffs on Serbian and Bosnian goods, pushing its EU visa liberalisation off the agenda. Macedonia’s name deal was great, but also merely a political gain. Skopje needs to catch up on reforms.

Meanwhile Brussels, focused on land swaps that no one believes are feasible, has forgotten to pay attention to whether the Western Balkan countries still aspire to become functional democracies. EU officials have said nothing about Vučić’s authoritarian policies, refused to comment on Gruevski’s escape to Budapest, and have not criticised Rama’s media censorship initiatives. They have been too busy dealing with rogue EU leaders such as Viktor Orbán, and have forgotten about the Western Balkans as if they were on a different continent.

At the political level, the EU, whose main interest lies in having a friendly democratic neighbourhood in the Western Balkans, has mostly engaged with political leaders, completely disregarding the drivers of social change. Indeed, it’s difficult to talk to crowds, and the lack of clear leadership in these protest movements is difficult for traditional diplomats to wrap their heads around.

But attitude is the key here. No-one in the Balkans had any illusion that EU integration was round the corner. The Juncker commission has made it clear since 2014 that this would not happen any time soon. In 2018, Brussels even says that Serbia and Montenegro, the forerunners might – just might – be ready to join in 2025. But the EU has been vehemently criticised by civil society in the Balkans not only for putting the integration of the region on the back burner, but for practically playing with people’s hopes for change by allowing authoritarian leaders and patrons to continue running their countries and engaging with them at the political level.

The answer has been, invariably, that it is the Balkan states’ fault for not undertaking the necessary reforms. There hasn’t been a clear message of support for civil society and the progressive movements, probably for fear that it would be seen as an infringement of sovereignty.

But the bottom line is that people are taking to the streets, and they are demanding social change. Political change they’ve had plenty and they know it doesn’t work, so stop telling them to simply vote.

Sure, the social change and development that could kill off the patron/client system will not happen overnight. It takes decades. But decades have already passed, while the people in the Balkans haven’t seen any change whatsoever. This has happened in the absence of proper holistic policies based on the social reality on the ground. About a decade ago, when the EU told them about their prospects for integration, they had hope. But reforms and development in the region have occurred only because these drivers of change in civil society and the private sector fought against the patron/client system, counting on external support.

Engaging local political patrons with authoritarian tendencies was short-sighted of Brussels because it simply disappointed and confused these small but important allies in civil society.

At the next protest in the Balkans, one has to watch the banners. They will probably say ‘Vučić thief’ and ‘Your time will end’. But replace the name with anyone else’s, and the message remains the same: it is the ‘thief’ part which is the problem.

ANA MARIA LUCA is Romanian correspondent for the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network (BIRN) and she reports for the regional publication, Balkan Insight.