Breaking the news. How authoritarian leaders divert public attention and why it is dangerous

28 January, 2022

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Breaking the news. How authoritarian leaders divert public attention and why it is dangerous

The news cycle in the Western Balkans has been dominated by a never-ending succession of crises. In some form or another, in every single country, the majority ethnic group is portrayed as being under threat. From headlines such as “difficult times ahead for Serbia”, “Montenegro without Montenegrins”, and “preparing for war” in Bosnia and Herzegovina, almost all these crises are man-made. To be more precise, they are amplified by leaders and parties in power to divert attention away from political mismanagement, corruption, and dismal demographic trends. With very little to show in actual performance, Vučić, Đukanović, Izetbegović, Dodik, Čović and the like aim to shore up their output legitimacy by reverting to nationalism. This is nothing new and in the reasoning of these leaders, there is no such thing as too much nationalism. However, the implications of normalizing nationalistic rhetoric are becoming more evident as provocations and threats against minorities increase.

Diane Vaughan coined the term normalization of deviance to describe a situation where minor deviations from a certain norm are accepted in the name of efficiency, cost or plain laziness. Over time these minor deviations become the new normal against which further small deviations are assessed. Bit by bit, the boundaries of what is considered acceptable shift and change towards an outcome that was initially unthinkable. Originally conceived to describe organizational faults within NASA leading to the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster, it can readily be applied to the study of nationalism. If we start from a baseline positive or banal nationalism, minor infringements on rights and freedoms of certain groups and minorities might be accepted to increase government legitimacy or efficiency.  But ideas can also emerge that deliberately exclude certain groups or target minorities. These deviations can progress further to othering of ideological opponents, especially those that emphasize liberal over communitarian values. Anything that is perceived as a threat to an increasingly narrow set of core national values can become a target. If such ideas are not publicly confronted by political (and religious) leaders through media, they become a new normal and a ground for further radicalization.

The normalization of nationalist rhetoric plays directly into the hands of ethnic leaders with authoritarian tendencies. In a nutshell it serves at least two purposes. The first is to equate the party and the leader with the core purpose of the nation. Thus the interests of, Milo Đukanović become inseparable from those of the Montenegrin nation. By emphasizing unity (and purity) of the nation, they can easily portray themselves as the sole defenders of said nation. This shields leaders from scrutiny and accountability. They are, after all, serving the national interest. The second purpose is to isolate and vilify opponents, primarily the political opposition by polarizing the electorate and othering their leaders and ideas, essentially labeling them as deceptive and different. The key tool to achieve this is a loyal media sphere. By breaking the news and adding a nationalist spin to almost any noteworthynews (Đoković, I am looking at you here), loyal media serve the interests of aspiring autocrats and helps normalize ever-increasing nationalism.

Nationalism and polarization bring with them the danger of radicalization, hate speech and extremism. The United Nations human rights office has recently condemned the rise of hate speech against minorities in Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina, warning that if left unchecked it can incite interethnic violence. They were referring to a series of murals celebrating convicted war criminals, graffiti smeared in settlements of minority returnees with memory of the 1990s war, and public videos of police glorifying war crimes and genocide. While such incidents previously occurred mostly among football fans and right-wing fringe groups, their recent prevalence among the broader Serb population is worrisome. By tacitly supporting, downplaying, ignoring, and not condemning outbursts of virulent nationalism, leaders such as Vučić and Dodik have accepted them as a new normal. Possibly they are not anymore politically able to openly confront the very virulent nationalism that serves to legitimize their rule. This is dangerous and possibly destabilizing for the entire Western Balkans.

The normalization of deviant forms of nationalism in Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina, but also in Bulgaria, Montenegro, Kosovo, Albania, Croatia, and North Macedonia has a chilling effect on civil society. As perceptions of threats increase, driven by nationalist imagination or as a reaction to virulent nationalism, rational voices among civic actors are sidelined. Both sensationalist media and outlets loyal to governments thrive in the continuous cycle of crises that generates more views, aware that this brings with it a resurgence of past trauma. Similarly, international actors such as the European Union are at a loss on how to deal with leaders not willing to speak up against hate speech and with ethnic media spheres that essentially function as information bubbles. Inaction is preferred over action and so the normalization of nationalistic rhetoric is left to complete another cycle of increasing radicalization in the Western Balkans.

With all this doom and gloom, is there anything we can do about it? The most important thing is not to be an accomplice in generating a cycle of crisis driven by nationalism, whether in public statements or on Twitter. Instead, we need to focus on pointing out, condemning, and sanctioning the very act of hate speech and virulent nationalism as an unacceptable form of communication, regardless of who is behind it. The second thing we can do is work towards dismantling the supposedly mythical bond between leaders and their nations, while strongly pushing for accountability. Along with it comes a categorical resolve that all citizens of the Western Balkans, no matter their religion or ethnicity, have a right to live free of fear and with dignity and respect. This is a task both for individuals, public figures, religious leaders, political parties (and party groups such as the EPP) and organizations, but also states and their foreign services. Only then might it prove possible to break the cycle of ever-increasing nationalist rhetoric in the Western Balkans.

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