Wednesday

20th Jan 2021

Opinion

Balkan Putinism

  • Putinism is essentially the mix of authoritarian rule and crony capitalism widespread in the Balkans (Photo: Wolfgang Klotz/Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung)

That ‘Putinism is threatening Europe’s borders’ has become a fashionable statement to make. Far less popular is the question it raises: where, exactly, do these borders lie?

This is obviously not because there is some universal agreement on the matter; the separatists in Donetsk and Lugansk have made that quite clear. It is rather due to the all too frequent misunderstanding of "Putinism" in its present, bellicose form.

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  • Vladimir Putin - "Thinly veiled dictatorial structures and lawlessness are the core features of Putinism" (Photo: kremlin.ru)

Putinism was in place in Russia long before Vladimir Putin’s Eurasian endeavour, before the narrative of Russia’s ‘historic mission’ and Western decadence, the military invasions and the nationalist hysteria.

The state of "illiberal democracy" which Fareed Zakaria defined back in 1997 (nowadays more often termed "guided" or "managed" democracy) describes much more adequately what Putinism essentially is: a mix of authoritarian rule and crony capitalism. A society where all-pervasive corruption has reduced democratic institutions to facades.

An economy paralysed by a clientelistic, tax-evading oligopoly, and a labour market determined by nepotism and partisan hiring. And, perhaps most pertinently, it is a political system where elections are staged and where the regime’s grip on power is periodically reaffirmed by the certainty of the results.

The question of demarcation

If this is an accurate portrayal of what Putinism looks like, it is evident that the "threat to Europe’s borders" is ideological as much as it is military.

The matter of demarcation, then, becomes that much harder if we ask it about a troubled region such as the Western Balkans.

Wherever Europe’s borders in the Balkans are intended to stand, the ideological question is the following: will the resulting European sphere encompass societies whose internal structure is undeniably Putinist?

Take a look at Serbia – a candidate country for EU accession, whose Government’s ties with Nato are at an all-time high.

In 2012, the corruption was so rampant and the economy in such a dire state that the post-Milosevic regime had squandered all of its credibility.

A big-tent party of former ultranationalists-turned-Europhiles took power and, instead of delivering on the reformist promises, it focused on cultivating idolatry of prime minister Aleksandar Vucic, fortifying party lines, monopolising the scheme of partisan hiring, privatising major state holdings under shady conditions, and establishing unprecedented media censorship.

Or consider Montenegro – another candidate for EU membership in the Union - which prides itself on being the "regional leader in Euroatlantic integrations". It has been ruled in continuity for 25 years by Milo Dukanovic's regime (from 1991 onwards, Dukanovic has either served as the country's prime minister, president or held de facto power).

Most industry has been privatised to phantom firms with ties to Dukanovic's cronies, the intelligence service is linked organised crime, institutional corruption is endemic at all levels of governance and party loyalty is the foremost requisite for finding a job.

Last year, the ruling party leadership was caught on tape discussing various methods of buying votes – there have been no criminal charges.

Finally, look at Macedonia - yet another aspiring EU member state where corruption is widespread. For the past six months, the government of PM Nikola Gruevski has been at the centre of a major wiretapping scandal.

The leaked conversations of various government officials suggest that the prime minister and his spymaster (who is his cousin) have been coordinating a surveillance scheme which, by some estimates, included 20,000 people.

In response, Gruevski accused the opposition of allying with foreign intelligence services to plot a treacherous coup.

Anti-European ideology

These regimes, with their thinly veiled dictatorial structures and culture of lawlessness, exemplify the core features of Putinism, and illustrate why it is such a threatening anti-European ideology.

But this brand of Putinism generally falls in line with EU's foreign policy priorities and stresses its European affiliation. It is 'illiberal democracy' with its claws retracted – Balkan Putinism.

Should the status quo persist, and EU partners in the region remain regimes such as Vucic’s, Dukanovic's or Gruevski's – what, then, will Europe's borders signify?

A permanently unstable pact, one that may easily be revised with the next geopolitical shake-up. The 'Putinism ante portas' phrase will be passé – because Putinism will already have entered through the back door.

Fedja Pavlovic is a philosophy student at Leuven university in Belgium. Send him a tweet at @FedjaPavlovic.

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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