Wednesday

17th Aug 2022

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.

Read and decide

Join EUobserver today

Become an expert on Europe

Get instant access to all articles — and 20 years of archives. 14-day free trial.

... or subscribe as a group

  • 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.

A year of Taliban — only aid is keeping Afghan kids alive

It's a year since the Western military presence in Afghanistan ended. A year since panic-stricken people flocked to Kabul airport, trying to flee the country, and girls and women waited fearfully for the disintegration of their hard-won rights.

Column

Is this strange summer a moment of change?

It is a strange, strange summer. The war in Ukraine continues, 60 percent of Europe is in danger of drought, and Covid is still around and could rebound in the autumn. At the same time, everyone is desperate for normalcy.

Column

Is this strange summer a moment of change?

It is a strange, strange summer. The war in Ukraine continues, 60 percent of Europe is in danger of drought, and Covid is still around and could rebound in the autumn. At the same time, everyone is desperate for normalcy.

Russia puts EU in nuclear-energy paradox

There's unprecedented international anxiety about the safety of Ukraine's nuclear reactors, but many European countries are also turning to nuclear power to secure energy supplies.

News in Brief

  1. Tens of thousands of Jews quit Russia since start of war
  2. Russia says GDP forecasts better than expected
  3. Spain 'hopeful' for new gas pipeline
  4. German troops return to Bosnia over instability fears
  5. Next UK PM candidates reject Scottish independence push
  6. Russia will not allow British spy plane overflight
  7. Discrimination in Germany remains high, new figures show
  8. US weighs plan to revive Iran nuclear deal

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic prime ministers: “We will deepen co-operation on defence”
  2. EFBWW – EFBH – FETBBConstruction workers can check wages and working conditions in 36 countries
  3. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic and Canadian ministers join forces to combat harmful content online
  4. European Centre for Press and Media FreedomEuropean Anti-SLAPP Conference 2022
  5. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic ministers write to EU about new food labelling
  6. Nordic Council of MinistersEmerging journalists from the Nordics and Canada report the facts of the climate crisis

Join EUobserver

Support quality EU news

Join us