There are, in general, two different ways to approach the most recent democratic decline in post-communist Europe. The first is based on the recent Polish and Hungarian experience. This approach suggests that the post-communist countries have, at some point after 1990, established democracy, rule of law, and market economy by formally crossing the democratic threshold (measured by an index of democracy), but are now sliding back because office has been occupied by conservative, ethno-nationalistic, and phobic political and social groups. Institutional change is, therefore, a product of an illiberal policy turn.
As has been pointed out by some critiques, such an approach runs a risk of “reverse transition paradigm.” Just like the early 1990’s, when many believed that post-communist societies were on the path to a democratic society, we are now running a risk of believing that these societies are sliding back in unison. While this may apply to some post-communist cases (Poland, Hungary), such “transitology in reverse” might be misleading as a general approach for the whole post-communist world.
There is a second approach relevant to Southeast Europe, including most former Yugoslav states, Albania, Bulgaria, and Romania. It draws on the Tillyian perspective concerning the relationship between citizens and the state. It suggests to look into state capture, rent-seeking, clientelism, and party patronage after the collapse of communism, thus trying to answer to what extent the elites used the state apparatus to extract political benefits for political competition. Unsurprisingly, one would observe a constant to the effect that post-communist transition in these countries has been characterized by the attempt of communist state officials (apparatchiks and “red managers”) to build seemingly democratic and market systems to enable extraction. In other words, democratic institutions were accepted as “the only game in town” as a mere formality, or a façade behind which a massive abuse of public resources took place. This was not a dominant practice in Poland and Hungary in the early 1990’s, where the post-communist elites accepted democracy and the market out of conviction, or because they believed the resources they possessed could be better deployed in the market and democratic environment. The main difference, therefore, between the two approaches is that the former emphasizes formal democratic institutions and the later informal. While the former may emphasize the measurement of democratic performance, the latter assumes that the incumbents may have built and maintained democratic forms behind which informal rules and institutions enabled rigged elections and rent-seeking economy.
Though both approaches are important, the latter appears to be more useful given the current context of the EU enlargement in Southeast Europe. As the six Balkan countries try to access the European Union, the EU commission, similar to the first approach, measures the candidates’ progress drawing on the concept of fulfilling formal criteria expressed in the White Book. The EU officials ask if certain institutions exist to measure the progress of an applicant. What they do not look into is if there is a broad coalition between politicians and tycoons established to maintain farcical democratic institutions – parliament, judiciary, public administration, regulatory agencies, etc. – to provide an advantage in political competition. Relying exclusively on the formal approach, the EU officials often turn a blind eye to massive real undemocratic practice, including the violation of the principles of rule of law and market economy, thus transforming the EU enlargement policy into one of the drivers of democratic decline in the Western Balkans.
Granted, a combination of both approaches is necessary to evaluate the state of democracy in the Western Balkans. There is, however, yet another reason why focusing on economic mechanisms is useful for researching democracy and politics in Southeast Europe. Most political regimes in Southeast Europe are hybrid regimes or weakly consolidated democracies. Such regimes essentially depend on the incumbents’ ability to manipulate and control public resources—notably party patronage and clientelism—in order to prolong their stay in office. This may affect the dynamics of these regimes. If the resources are controlled tightly, the stability of such regimes is stronger. In contrast, if the incumbent leaves significant freedom to the economic sphere, the non-democratic regime is more easily changed into a democratic one. The political-economy analysis is thus essential for the right understanding of the democratic decline in Southeast Europe.
The new issue of Southeast Europe and Black Sea Studies offers a series of articles about the state of democracy on Southeast Europe – North Macedonia, Montenegro, Croatia, Albania, Bosnia, Kosovo, and Serbia – that looks into not only illiberal ideologies of major political actors but also into how Balkan incumbents use different sorts of illiberal practices to violate the rules and abuse public resources in order to sideline the opposition.
(The text is part of the BiEPAG's series on illiberalism in Southeast Europe)