It is obvious that our own authoritarians are the main obstacle to political transformation of the Western Balkans societies’ that is necessary for Europeanisation. By favouring strict obedience to their authority, even at the expense of Europeanisation reforms, the Balkans’ authoritarians have been taking advantage of weak democratic systems to retain and expand their power over the respective societies. Their political worldviews, underlying motivations and behaviour have shaped a narrative that is increasingly in open confrontation with that of Europeanisation. Therefore, the longer the latter and the longer their power entrenched into political, economic and social institutions, the more an emerging ideological divide – between authoritarians and liberals – is expected to take hold in Western Balkans politics. It is a divide between the real authoritarians dominating our politics for over a quarter a century now and ideal liberals we are yet to find among us to lead us.
The two are opposites in the sense that they fit different eras of political development. Authoritarians belong to a political era of etatism built around the notion of sovereignty of the ethnic nation over its own national land and nationals, over laws and all kinds of institutions, of any forms of political power, domestically and internationally. Liberals belong to a political era of ‘post-ethnic states’, whereby the state, as one among many sources of political authority, is built around the notion of shared sovereignty of civic nations, and exercised by and through, instead of over, citizens, laws and institutions.
Authoritarians see government as an instrument of rule of the state over the individual; liberals as a form of political organization. Authoritarians seem to be operating their states as instruments to limit the scope of individual and collective freedom, to enhance inequality before the law in a framework of rule of arbitrariness driven by claims to authority obtained through electoral democracy alone. Liberals see the purpose of the state as a social construction to enhance and protect individual and collective freedoms and equality before the law in a framework of institutionalized rule of law.
In the authoritarians’ worldview, Europeanisation has nothing to do with political values and norms. They find them merely as make-believe rhetoric making them look ‘normal’ in Europe’s and their citizens’ eyes, actually exclusively designed to gain, keep and expand power. They proclaim that you can be anything in terms of political identity and still believe in joining the EU, just by ‘doing what they say’, even if simultaneously acting against European values and norms. To liberals European values and norms are fundamental givens, shaped in various societies that have successfully joined the EU. They are convinced that their political identity and beliefs are the most conducive to development based on enhanced freedom.
Authoritarians share a monolithic view of institutions: there are only formal ones and societies must be organized by them and in their image. Liberals share a pluralistic view of institutions: there are diverse, both formal and informal, ones, and individual citizens and groups are free to organize through whatever rules they chose, without the interference of government power. As normless political opportunists, to authoritarians institutions and rules of their functioning are bendable to and changeable at their will, even after each election cycle, and that such rules only serve the post-election constitution of formal institutions. To liberals institutions and rules of their functioning are fixed and have to be complied with by political actors, and that constitution of formal institutions is only a means to public institutions raison d’être: functioning governance. For authoritarians, Europeanisation reforms are to be imposed by formal institutions, from above, onto their societies, just as they are ‘imposed’ by the EU. And if they don’t work, it’s EU’s fault. For liberals, Europeanisation is about reforms shaped and implemented in a participatory process, thus bringing about change of behaviour of entire societies.
Authoritarians view political competition as merely a means of gaining power, detached from governance. They hold that trust is given to them as the ‘elected’ few at the ballot box and that only they are endowed with agency of political participation. This is an elitist, hierarchical view of political participation, premised on political inequality. For liberals political competition is an integral part of governance. They hold that trust can also be taken away and needs to be continuously proven and checked by citizens, who have to be endowed with agency for political participation. They share an egalitarian view of political participation, premised on political equality.
While truly believing in ethnic states, authoritarians act as free riders pretending, only as a means to retain power, to also believe that Europeanisation brings about post-ethnic states. Yet, unbound by values, norms and rules governing political behaviour, to them it does not really matter, for one can always return to the ethnic state. To liberals, Europeanisation is both the means and the purpose of bringing about post-ethnic states as a welcome end of the current age of political development, for return to ethnic states means going back to an outdated age of political development.
Therefore, rather than proclaiming what they do not believe in just for the sake of retaining power, authoritarians would be more honest to admit to their respective citizens and the EU what they truly believe: that the EU is simply a club of the rich that can help their countries’ economic development. That would mean reducing relations with the EU to exchange of economic interests with its member states, which could mean effectively promoting and allying with ‘sovereignist’ political actors within the EU and most probably never joining the EU. This would also mean depriving us all of the value of EU’s political conditionality as the greatest incentive for reform.
It is up to us citizens of the Western Balkans, as Europeans or not, to choose where do we want to live in, for ourselves and for the generations to come. This is about an unavoidable choice between liberals and authoritarians, between Europe and non-Europe.
*Views expressed are only of the author.
In cooperation of two web portals, Remarker and Sbunker, a series of analysis will be published in the upcoming period in order to promote a critical debate on the current situation in the region of the Western Balkans.
After last messages received from one of the most influential members of the EU, France, the region has faced one of the greatest challenges in the last 30 years, when countries in the Western Balkans began their difficult path, first into conflicts and then in the process of democratization and european integration.
The goal of Remarker and Sbunker is to support better understanding of the current trends in the countries of the Western Balkans and raise the awareness on necessity of european integration process, straightening the process of democratization and the rule of law as necessary preconditions for permanent peace and stability in the region.
You may find the Albanian version here and the Serbian version here.