A system of politics based on competing interests groups of patrons and clients – without common goals and now beset by an economic crisis – is heading towards collapse.
This article originally appeared on 28 December in BalkanInsight
Macedonia is experiencing yet another of the many crises that have afflicted it during its little more than two decades of existence as a state.
Like all the others, this crisis has been provoked by a political class that has always been willing to subordinate its ethical values, and even legal standards, to one goal: that its leaders should prevail.
As a result, not only the political system but society itself is held hostage to the egos of a few leaders who consider the country their property and its people as a manoeuvrable mass, easy to manipulate and instrumentalise. And, unfortunately, this is the case. Macedonian society is too weak, fragmented and polarised to resist this behaviour.
When one talks of “leaders”, one should say groups, clusters of influential people, often well planted on both sides of the thin line that separates legality from crime.
As in all countries emerging from the collapse of Communism, a large percentage of Macedonia’s political class has emerged from the structures of the former regime, formed by people who possessed inside knowledge and access to large, often illicit, funds.
A second layer immediately formed beyond them, a larger group of less exposed and less charismatic persons, willing to enter the political game and profit from the power, influence and access to funds of the core group.
At the intersection of these two groups with the emerging market economy, which in turn is dominated by people who mostly made their fortunes by diverting public or state funds into their own pockets – theft, as it were – networks of interest-driven alliances formed across ideological differences. Serious crises in Eastern and Southeast Europe happen when these networks of interests clash, as in Romania this year.
Macedonian society has been organised around a few such networks and so have political parties. The reality is that there is neither a left nor a right on the political stage. The only differences should be over the pace and ways of financing government, as well as over degrees of cooperation with international political, economic and financial structures and mechanisms.
Logically, this should mean a national consensus about Macedonia’s priorities as it continues on its way towards European integration, following the model pursued by the Baltic states during their accession period. But in Macedonia the opposite is the case.
No consensus exists on any issues across the political and ethnic divides. Instead, what is characteristic is the fierce character of the political controversy, which often degenerates into real battle, even costing lives.
Since it cannot be about ideas, this controversy must be about something else. And this something is easily identified as influence. Exercising influence is costly, so it is about resources as well. And to secure the necessary resources and the influence, it helps to be in power.
And those in power are expected to share their resources, at least a small percentage of them. The essence of clientelism is to keep people dependent, with lots of promises, partially fulfilled. For the rest, blame the enemy and produce more promises. But ask for services in exchange. Some of these services consist in being the troops needed for the battles.
Clientelism-based systems are conservative, striving to preserve the status quo as long as possible. To this end, almost any means are legitimate. Macedonia’s system is genuinely anti-reform oriented on all levels. A top-down chain of command rests on an inert, hyper-inflated state administration, in which belonging to a network is much more important than qualifications, since the network is the only job guarantee.
The only revolutionary act, in terms of trying to overthrow an existing strong patronage group occurred in the conflict of 2001.
The most tangible effect was the violent replacement of the Democratic Party of Albanians, DPA, as the leading patron among the ethnic Albanian community in Macedonia by a new formation, the Democratic Union for Integration, DUI.
The Ohrid Framework Agreement proved to be the perfect instrument to cement the DUI’s hold on power, as it entailed the opportunity to employ thousands of people in the state administration, thus creating an unprecedented network of intertwined interdependences.
A decade on, this network still works in favour of a small group around the party leader, Ahmeti, and the opposition has almost been annihilated by exclusion.
Following the clientelist logic, the DUI leadership has turned into a conservative patron, seeking to preserve the support from its clientele at any cost. The current dysfunctional coalition with VMRO-DPMNE is one indicator of this attitude. The other indicator is the desperate attempt to create a discourse in which the DUI is identified with the Albanian nation.
Through an absurd symbiosis of Skenderbeg and Adem Jashari, this patronage group attempts to monopolise the Albanian national narrative in Macedonia in order to legitimise and cement its network and the activities emerging from it, by tying a majority of the Albanian population into its network.
So far, this has worked, although the ideological construction is pretty shaky, especially because it has no real local anchorage.
What we are witnessing in Macedonia is the beginning of the decay of one group in power, because it cannot sustain the level of resources needed to satisfy its clientele. The main problem is an ambitious project, driven by personal hubris and the wish to make history.
Both the redefinition of Macedonian identity as an allegedly Antique one and the closely linked “Skopje 2014” project, redefining the look of the Macedonian capital to fit this ideology, have produced dependencies and worked in favour of the patrons and the clientele. But the cost is too high to be sustained in times of recession.
It is thus not surprising that there is nervousness on the horizon. While the government has to seek short-term loans from private banks, the economic crisis is worsening. Feeble attempts to disguise the crisis by calling it a “positive recession”, as the director of the national bank did not long ago, are bound to fail. A recession is a recession.
The group in power has mobilised a large part of the population and alienated and polarised the rest with three items: national paranoia, delusions of national grandeur and an economic bubble based on construction and employment in the state administration.
The national paranoia element, making people believe that Macedonia is surrounded by enemies, takes the “name” conflict with Greece and the incapacity and unwillingness of the international factor to end it, and turns it into a discourse of “us against the world”.
But only great nations can take on this fight. The second element of the construction kicks in here: the creation of a “grand nation” narrative. It is not enough to be a Slavic nation among many others, especially when small in numbers.
The symbiosis of a biblical nation with Antique roots is the result. Simple, compelling, adding the transcendent, religious element to a long pedigree, it is the perfect mix for the creation of a myth of a chosen people.
If one adds in the massive construction drive, conducted with state subsidies or direct financing, and the large numbers of persons of questionable qualification who have found a safe seat in the state administration, this should do to keep the masses content for a while. It is dangerous, though, when the bubble bursts. Hence the nervousness of the leading group.
On the other side of the barricade is an opposition that has never functioned as such. They have the attitude of rightful landlords who have been kicked out by ungrateful tenants.
There is a certain logic to their attitude. During the first almost entire decade of its rule, the now oppositional patronage group around the Social Democrat leader, Branko Crvenkovski, laid the foundations of the prevalent governing style in Macedonia.
Large parts of social property were privatised into the hands and pockets of a few, creating a legal basis for the power groups that emerged from the collapse of Yugoslavia and a permanent financial basis for the newly formed party.
The patronage group underwent a few processes of erosion and had to make the party undergo a facelift, but in essence the inner circle has persisted, waiting for its chance to regain power. This explains the arrogance and cynicism of this self-styled elite as well as its refusal to reform itself.
In six years of opposition in splendid isolation, the group around the SDSM leadership has allowed the topics and pace of the political race to be dictated by the governing group, acting only as a corrective to government policies.
The opposition has failed to come up with its own narrative, opposing the government’s strong, populist discourse. While the governing patronage group has created and imposed a new national narrative, based on exclusion, confrontation and an invented past, the opposition has taken refuge in denial.
This is not surprising, when we look at political parties as a constitutive part of conservative clientelist patronage groups. A new discourse would put existing dependencies in danger, shaking up existing and functioning ties.
From this perspective, and ignoring several subgroups as well as regional inter-dependencies, Macedonian society looks like being held hostage by three large clientelist and conservative patronage groups, without a system of checks and balances.
Thus it is no surprise that the political system is marked by structural decay, or that the political confrontation is between leaders and their troops rather than between opposing ideas competing for the common good. When the political fight is left to warlords, it is not surprising that there is no respect for laws or civil liberties. Rules are made for those who are under them, not for the rulers.
The present parliamentary system was created about a decade ago in perfect harmony of the dominant political parties and an ignorant international community. Changing from a mixed system to a proportional system of closed party lists dealt parliamentary democracy a blow.
Instead of investing citizens with the power to control their MPs and their work in specific constituencies, it created a parliament in which issues are not debated, but in which party soldiers carry out tasks set by their leaders. Though elected by the people, they do not report to them. There is no structural communication between the sovereign, i.e. the citizens and their legislative.
Today, parliament is merely a machine producing the web needed to sustain the clientele groups and to keep them loyal to their patrons.
Recent events in and around the parliament in Skopje illustrate this situation. The highest institution of democracy, sometimes referred to as a temple, has been desecrated several times in the last 20 years but never to this degree.
Neither action that occurred there can be morally, ethically or legally justified: trying to prevent parliamentarians from entering the main hall; police using force to remove parliamentarians and journalists from parliament; sitting passively or even applauding instead of trying to stop the violence. The conduct of parliamentarians over the last decade has often been beyond any standards of decency or professionalism, but these events were without precedent.
One should not present a fake balance here: government institutions, in this case the President of the Parliament and the Minister of Interior are responsible for the proper implementation of laws and are to be held responsible when laws are broken under their command.
But the point is that the Macedonian democracy has been trampled upon again by two of the three power centres, while representatives of the third, who were not stakeholders in the confrontation, participated in the trampling exercise through passivity.
Regardless of who is in power or in opposition, mobilising the mob and encouraging a physical confrontation with an uncertain outcome point not only to irresponsibility but to a deep disrespect for the highest authority in a democracy: the citizens. Again, following the logic of the patronage groups, this is hardly surprising.
And since the new role model for ambitious leaders in East and Southeast Europe seems to be Russia’s Vladimir Putin and his autocratic style, it come as no surprise that his KGB-era tactics find an application here as well.
Organising fake parties and associations and mobilising the state administration and the other clientele groups to demonstrate against the opposition from a position of power is against all principles of democracy.
Protests are the tool of the powerless, the only tool of those who cannot make their voice heard in the institutional setup. Usurping this democratic right is usurping the democratic system. This is what Putin’s style is about and this is unacceptable in a country that claims to be part of the European family.
The question is how and whether Macedonia can extricate itself from this decay of democratic values and stop itself from becoming a failing structure, slowly sliding into an unmanageable situation.
For one, the political space has to be opened for new forces. Society has to find the strength to do away with the patronage groups, overcome ethnic division and think of politics as a competition of ideas if not ideologies.
It has to find the strength to tolerate competing and alternative narratives and create a real opposition to this ransacking of the country by patronage and clientelism. It has to take the initiative from the patronage groups and bring it to the centre of society, to the people.
It has to start a genuine discussion about the core values of Macedonian democracy and the state, and about a nation-making process beyond boundaries of ethnicity or provenience. It has to turn into an open society. To do all that, it needs to educate itself properly.
For all this it needs international friends by its side – not with money for projects that only go into the clientele system, but providing genuine advice and assistance – not to those who think they are the elite, but to the whole of Macedonian society.
Vision? Wake up…