18th Feb 2019


Balkan Putinism, besieged

  • Anti-Gruevski rally in Macedonia, shortly before a bigger pro-Gruevski rally (Photo:

Macedonia’s prime minister, Nikola Gruevski, is a dark horse. His life path, like that of most autocrats, is distinctly unimpressive. His only truly striking feature is the power he’s managed to acquire.

Last Sunday (17 May), as tens of thousands of protesters rallied to demand his resignation, he looked like an embattled tyrant whose days are numbered.

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On Monday, he managed to pull a Putin on his foes. In a show of strength, he staged an even more massive pro-government counter-protest. “Macedonia is strong!” he shouted defiantly. “Macedonia will not surrender!”

Provincial strongmen, when cornered, tend to react in two ways.

The first kind will initially agree to a compromise after which they will do their best to softly kill the deal through obstructionism and delay tactics.

The second kind will flex their muscles and stick to their guns. As the conflict goes on, they will get progressively more ruthless, refusing to give up ‘till Birnam wood remove to Dunsinane’.

Gruevski seems to belong to the latter sort.

In a recent piece, I proposed the term “Balkan Putinism” to describe the distinguishing characteristics of political regimes in Macedonia, Serbia and Montenegro.

I argued that their feeble governmental institutions, finely controlled media, and dependent NGOs constitute a democratic facade designed to conceal a deeply corrupt, authoritarian, and mafia-like structures.

The ongoing crisis in Macedonia provides a telling example how this Balkan-style brand of Putinism behaves when placed under siege.

Any hope of predicting its future moves depends on understanding their success – the skill with which these regimes manage to juggle geopolitical affiliations, keep a low profile in great powers’ capitals, and appease the West by nominally falling in line with its strategic priorities.

Bordering an overburdened EU - think Greece, Ukraine, Brexit, and the migration crisis - Gruevski and other regional strongmen have noticed the EU has neither time nor energy to pursue an assertive neighbourhood policy.

As long as the Balkan powder keg is kept reasonably dry, European Commission head Jean-Claude Juncker will not lose sleep over media censorship in Serbia, Montenegro election fraud or Gruevski’s massive wiretapping scheme.

Balkan states lack the size and strategic importance to be the high-stakes poker game that Ukraine has become, that Egypt was in 2010, or that Yugoslavia was in 2000.

Beyond neutral mediation

If the Macedonian opposition hopes to succeed in getting rid of Gruevski’s regime, they will need to find a way to force the EU’s hand beyond “neutral mediation”.

How do they do that? Here are some things to consider.

First, strongmen of Gruevski’s sort can never be removed from office through elections. Rigging the vote is an essential feature of all “managed” or “illiberal” democracies.

The certainty of an election victory has been vital in elevating Putin beyond a mere presidential contender, to a personification of a regime that has replaced its competence to govern with the ability to win elections.

The same cynical tune could be heard at Gruevski’s rally on Monday: “You want to change the Government? Use elections!”.

Protests are, therefore, the only option at the Macedonian opposition’s disposal.

Second, because these essentially undemocratic regimes rely on numerical strength, they should not be challenged from the position of superior numbers. The ability to swiftly and efficiently reassert power, mobilising armies of flag-waving supporters, is central to these regimes’ internal legitimacy.

When faced with a wave of popular protests in 2011, Putin packed the Luzhniki Stadium with 130,000 supporters. The message carried more force than the police violence at Bolotnaya Square.

Gruevski’s counter-protest served to emphasize this point: whatever manpower you raise, we’ll muster twice as much.

Macedonian protesters, therefore, must rely on resolve and perseverance before quantity. That would, likely, mean erecting barricades, as well as withstanding clashes with police and titushky-style thug brigades, which are, at some point, bound to happen.

Third, if push comes to shove, leaders like Gruevski will offer some sort of a transitional deal, or concessions similar to the ones Hosni Mubarak was prepared to make in January 2010.

They may be ready to incite serious conflicts among ethnic or religious lines, to drag the country into chaos in order to position their own (partial) survival as a condition for peace.

The recent terrorist attacks in Kumanovo (Macedonia), whose timing was, at the very least, chillingly suspicious, serve to strengthen the intuition.

If it comes to Gruevski proposing a deal, a powerful media front is likely to present it as a conciliatory sine qua non. But such a compromise would be disastrous for Macedonia’s future.

However low Macedonia may be today on the EU’s order of business, we should follow its developments attentively - not least because a small group of powerful, dictatorial gentlemen south of the Danube is also keeping a close eye on this country, hoping there’s no dominos around.

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

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