BIRN Attack ‘Part of Balkan Democratic Crisis’

January 28, 2015
A new model of authoritarian government is taking hold in the Balkans, which the EU is failing to recognise or address, Florian Bieber said at the LSE.

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 Florian Bieber at the LSE event. Photo by LSEE

The orchestrated campaign against BIRN in Aleksandar Vucic’s Serbia was a prime example of the new authoritarianism sweeping the Balkans, which is the rolling back the democratic gains of the 1990s, Balkan expert Florian Bieber said in London on Tuesday.

Speaking at the London School of Economics on the “Crisis of Democracy in the Balkans”, Bieber, a Professor for Southeastern European Studies in Graz, said the case fit “a regional pattern of authoritarian temptation”. This has seen the rise of governments with marked authoritarian and anti-democratic traits, which are not to be confused with classic dictatorships, however.

Bieber said Vucic’s repeated claims that BIRN had lied in connection with its report on the dewatering of the Tamnava mine formed part of a broader pattern of orchestrated offensives against dissenting, critical voices that relied on tame tabloid media.

Other examples were the ferocious campaign against the rights group MANS in Montenegro and the arrest and jailing of the investigative journalist Tomislav Kezarovski in Macedonia. 

Bieber noted the apparent paradox in Vucic accusing BIRN of “getting money from [Michael] Davenport” – the EU chief in Belgrade – to spread alleged falsehoods, while his government actively pursues membership of the EU.

The paradox was not unusual, he added. Throughout the region, governments have appropriated a discourse about Europe, reform and fighting corruption while in practice behaving very differently.

Bieber said the new authoritarian governments of the region were not to be confused with their predecessors in the 1990s. They did not need to promote war or ultra-nationalism, speak through a “state media” or win elections by blatant fraud.

The new model of governance was characterised by strong party political control of the administration – and the jobs market, deep penetration of supposedly independent state institutions and a flexible attitude towards the law.

In some ways the new system was stronger and more effective – more “Machiavellian”, as he put it. Multi-party coalitions allowed for the division of the spoils of the state between a number of different stakeholders, for example.

The growth of the private, nominally independent media allowed the new regimes to speak through a host of supposedly unrelated outlets, from which the state could also distance itself if need be.

Addressing the factors behind the rise of new-style authoritarianism in Southeast Europe, Bieber singled out disappointment with reformism, which fed a “svi su isti” [“they’re all the same”] mentality among voters. The failure of truly ideological parties with defined social constituencies to emerge was another factor.

Ironically, EU integration had in some sense assisted the rise of authoritarian populists in region, which had learned to appropriate slogans about Europe, corruption – and also use them as a tool against domestic opponents. There was “a curious inter-relationship between EU integration and these patterns [of government]”, he noted.

In the EU’s monitoring the region, such as in the progress reports, there was not “the strength of language you would expect to see”, Bieber noted. There was a phenomenon of the EU “not seeing the wood for the trees” in the sense that the often ruthless acts of regional governments towards opponents was not reflected in reports, which, addressing a multiplicity of sectors, failed to take in “the overall picture”.

Apart from this bureaucratic approach, another issue appeared to be the EU’s strategic considerations. In Kosovo and Serbia, for example, much in EU eyes was subordinated to the priority of maintaining the EU-led Kosovo-Serbia dialogue.

Another factor behind the overly upbeat or bland character of EU reports and assessments of developments in the region was a perceived need in Brussels to keep the mood music positive, at a time when the principle of enlargement is under increasing attack from within the EU.

Bieber concluded by suggesting that the new-style authoritarian governments were here to stay – and not only in the Balkans. Hungary was another example.

Over the longer term, some might “trip up” by claiming one set of values – over Europe, reform and so on – while following another. However, this lay in the more distant future. In the medium term, one thing about these governments was certain: “What they won’t do is move towards liberal democracy”.


This article is also available in: Bos/Hrv/Srp