Jasmin Mujanović: Hunger and Fury: The crisis of democracy in the Balkans (C Hurst & Co Publishers Ltd, 2018)

By DANIJELA DOLENEC      JAN 24, 2018

The following text is a review by Danijela Dolenec of the new book by Jasmin Mujanović Hunger and Fury: The crisis of democracy in the Balkans (C Hurst & Co Publishers Ltd, 2018). Dolenec, a member of the editorial board of the Croatian Political Science Review, is currently a visiting scholar at the Nuffield College, University of Oxford, UK. She presented her review of Mujanović’s book as an invited discussant at the book launch event on 24th January 2018 at St. Anthony’s College in Oxford, UK. Dolenec’s generously informed critical reading of the book moves further the debate about the democratic transformation of the Balkans.

 

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Were it not for the subtitle, you may be excused for thinking this was a book about Trump. Though this is not a ‘toxic tale that singes all’[1], Mujanović’s Hunger and Fury does aim to put you at the edge of your seat. According to him, in the coming years, ordinary peoples’ desperation in the region will transform into terrifying fury ‘that will rip open the social terrain of the Western Balkans’, creating a storm that ‘will leave in its wake fresh soil from which genuinely reformed societies may emerge’ (p.187)[2]. Yes, you read that correctly: Mujanović predicts a democratic revolution in the Balkans. In this book he unabashedly addresses the big question of the fate of democracy in the Balkans, analysing domestic and international processes to predict the region’s future trajectory. In an era in which, arguably, social science research increasingly takes place within technical and fragmented conversations, the big picture approach is certainly refreshing. And indeed, in terms of genre, as Mujanović himself stresses, this book is poised in between social science and popular commentary. It is clear and ambitious in stating its theses, written to be read and discussed, rather than elegantly shelved or forced down students’ throats.

Hunger and Fury consists of four chapters, the first two of which examine the factors driving the democratic crisis, while the subsequent two outline possible effects and outcomes. The first chapter takes the long view on the character of governance in the Balkans, examining the period of Ottoman rule in the region as the backdrop for the emergence of ‘elastic authoritarianism’, a feature of elite rule that Mujanović describes as ‘their ability to extract privileges from the center’ and to ‘shift allegiances to new benefactors when the previous hegemon lost its position’ (p.31). The second chapter deals primarily with the distinct failures of the US and EU as international actors effectuating democracy in the region, where Mujanović argues that the international community cared too much about security and too little about democracy. In the third chapter he outlines a possible trajectory for the region in which, due to flawed Western policies, the region might increasingly shift to non-Western patrons such as Russia, China, Turkey or the Golf States. In the fourth chapter he turns to contemporary social movements in the region, focusing on Slovenia, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Macedonia, arguing that they represent harbingers of widespread revolt that is to come. Tying together his analysis, Mujanović advises the US and EU to back new actors that have begun emerging from mass mobilization in the region. Were these new actors given a chance to hold power, Mujanović thinks they would ‘truly infuse failing parliamentary institutions with the spirit of democracy’ (p.20) and hence bring long term stability to the region.

Taking on board that Mujanović emphasises how he is more interested in general themes than precise definitions (p.11), it seems that the book deserves a political as much as a social sciency discussion. In this review, I therefore focus on several issues relevant for studies of democratic transformation – the unclear regional scope of this study, the character of the regimes he is describing and the usefulness of the concept of elastic authoritarianism, the overly-hopeful approach to external democracy promotion, and the residual Orientalism of the analysis – but, as I hope to show, my discussion is primarily concerned with outlining the inconsistencies in the political vision that Mujanović sets out for the region.

Advancing through the chapters, one wonders whether this is an analysis of the Balkans, the Western Balkans, Southeast Europe, or countries of former Yugoslavia. Mujanović casually moves back and forth between these labels, even though resorting to each of these evokes a distinct set of countries. Fair enough, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Montenegro and Macedonia are encompassed in all, but the outer perimeter of the analysis keeps constantly shifting. Furthermore, the label Western Balkans, to which the author most frequently resorts, only makes sense within the framework of European integration, since it was invented by Brussels to stand for Balkan countries minus Bulgaria and Romania (hence the designation “Western”). Up until 2013 it included Croatia, now it no longer does. In other words, the term is a pragmatic political label which bundles up countries of diverse historical and political histories that share the (increasingly dimmer) prospect of EU membership. At one point Mujanović states that the heart of his argument concerns former Yugoslav states, and it is therefore not clear why he does not stick with this political-geographic scope throughout. It would have made his analysis more consistent, though not resolving all problems. Though the state-socialist period produced convergence effects, important socioeconomic differences persisted throughout the duration of the regime and after its dissolution[3]. As an illustration of these differences, Figure 1 shows GDP per capita trends for Slovenia, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Macedonia, the three countries that Mujanović analyses in the fourth chapter.

Figure 1: GDP per capita, in current international $, 1995-2016

Source: World Bank Databank

The gap between Slovenia on the one hand, and B&H and Macedonia on the other, is large and consistent over time. According to Eurostat, in 2016 Slovenia was at 83% of EU average in economic development, while B&H and Macedonia were at 32% and 37% respectively[4]. The author himself speaks of ‘wide inequalities in income, productivity and culture between the north and south’ (p.75). When he claims that ‘Balkan polities never quite made the transition from protection racket and monopoly of violence to republic’ (p.38), one wonders whether we are supposed to include Slovenia or Croatia in that description. Similarly, Mujanović claims that ‘emigration is endemic’ (p.101) when Slovenia is actually experiencing positive net migration[5], with most foreign immigrants coming to the country from Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Serbia, Croatia and Macedonia. Not to belabour this point further, it does not require a vulgar materialist to acknowledge that these countries have been developing under quite dissimilar conditions, following divergent trajectories both pre- and post- 1990. If we are to explain divergence rather than uniformity, then the main argument Mujanović is making, attributing democratic crisis to Ottoman-generated kleptocratic elites and misguided foreign policy, requires narrowing down in scope. It seems fair to say that his arguments may claim most validity for the core four countries encompassed by all the labels he resorts to – B&H, Serbia, Montenegro and Macedonia.

In describing the character of regimes in this region, Mujanović puts forward the concept of elastic authoritarianism, which is intended to capture ‘the process of persistent ideological mutation contrasted with static political and economic patterns, through which local elites have deliberately stunted social transformation processes in the Balkans since the 19th century’ (p.8). Foreign patrons came and went, ideological projects crumbled and re-emerged, but local elites learned to manage their changing patrons and enrich themselves, while exploiting, manipulating and immobilizing their populations. Unlike in the West which is characterised by transactional circuits of capital, in this region, Mujanović argues, coercion remains the primary mode of production. Here we have a primitive form of capitalism where accumulation relies on violence and plunder, ‘an economic regime founded on blood and soil’ which ‘thus remained broadly feudal in a socio-economic sense’ (p. 24). Mujanović mourns the fact that the post-1990 set of economic reforms did not lead to an ‘embrace of free market competition but of patrimonial redistribution’ (p.101). In this respect his account taps into a popular style of lamentation by scholars from the region, whereby local varieties of capitalism are considered ‘primitive”. This is echoed also when the author claims that the structural factors that led to Yugoslavia’s dissolution were not the responsibility of the West, but ‘almost entirely the product of local factors and patterns of development’ (p.92). Absent from his account are structural determinants of the peripheral status of the region’s economies, as analysed by Bohle and Greskovits (2013)[6] and others, which examine ways in which economic dependency on the West impacts the political economy of these societies. For an account that starts from defining the regimes based in their dependency status, not to draw from comparative political economic perspectives seems like a glaring omission.

Mujanović is therefore describing the political economy of peripheral states, which are characterised by patron-client relations between domestic elites and foreign actors that substantially shape both economic and political features of these regimes. In such structural circumstances the elites indeed take on the role of brokers, continuously calculating the political cost of satisfying external patron demands while maintaining their power base. Vachudova (2005)[7] and others have put forth convincing accounts of ways in which satisfying EU criteria for accession has jeopardized the hold on power for nationalist elites across Eastern Europe. In that sense it is not clear what we gain with the concept of elastic authoritarianism. One wonders, what would an inelastic authoritarianism look like? Also, if these authoritarian regimes have been successfully elastic for hundreds of years, is there a way out at all? Levitsky and Way’s concept of competitive authoritarianism[8], to which Mujanović refers to in his discussion of Macedonia, does a much better job at simultaneously capturing elements of stability of these regimes, as well as sources of breakdown and change. We are after all discussing the part of Europe where Milošević and Tuđman were removed through mass mobilization centred on the electoral process.

Even though he strongly stresses the dependency status of this region on foreign patrons since Ottoman times, Mujanović does not draw the implication that for these countries democratic transformation might be closely intertwined with reducing their dependency status. Instead, he argues for more – only better – foreign intervention. In the third chapter he takes time to condemn the Western reaction to the break-up of Yugoslavia, summing it up as ‘wilful, cynical ignorance’ (p.84). Had American and European policymakers dealt with the crisis decisively “the whole bloody mess might have been avoided entirely” (ibid.). Instead, Mujanović contends, the US and EU left the Balkans ‘in the dark of creeping authoritarian retrenchment’ (p.114). Moving from history to contemporary times, he argues that the US and EU are replicating past errors by bargaining with corrupt elites. Mujanović chastises the West, but also looks to it to save the Balkans from crumbling altogether. Here one again wonders, after outlining a history of patronage politics in the region, does it make sense to advocate further patronage? Mujanović’s analysis implies that foreign dependency is inescapable, and the future of the region hinges on the goodwill of its Western patrons.

When Mujanović criticises the international policy community for not fostering participatory democracy (p.100), the reader wonders, when did foreign actors ever foster participatory democracy in a society, and why would they? Isn’t it perfectly legitimate of foreign actors to care about stability first and expanding to new markets second, leaving other concerns to societies in question? A consistent finding in democracy promotion literature is precisely its limited reach regarding deep ‘societal’ transformation[9]. In this context, the EU has indeed developed previously unseen capacity, applying conditionality for membership to impose various kinds of reforms intended to strengthen the formal institutional framework for democratic pluralism. Mujanović is however very critical of the EU integration process, considering it technocratic, institutional and elite-centred (p.93). At the same time, he considers the international community and domestic civil society as the ‘most committed and dependent on democratic consolidation in the region’ (p.107). His prescription for democratizing the region is for the international community to support the emerging civil society (p.182), which flies in the face of his criticism of the EU for believing it could produce a ‘rightly ordered society’ by ‘installing the right elites’ (p.93). Indeed, Mujanović’s political vision is well summed up in European integration literature from the mid-2000, though he is not aware of this. According to this research[10], EU is only effective once it has stakeholders on the ground that it can work with. In competitive authoritarian settings the EU works to strengthen rival groups in society, nurturing liberal oppositions and hoping to strengthen their influence. Democratization is understood as necessarily an internal process, which can only be helped along from the outside. And indeed, the big stories of democratic breakthrough in the region, the toppling of Milošević and Tuđman, tell precisely this story of growing internal strength of civic and political opposition, which received help and encouragement by the Western international community.

Having all this in mind, it is surprising to read in Mujanović that ‘civil society as a social phenomenon remains embryonic and underdeveloped in the Western Balkans’ (p.143). Particularly since at the same time he describes the social movement Otpor from Serbia as ‘an organic, local manifestation that grew directly out of the nearly decade-long student, anti-war, and civil society opposition movement in Serbia’ (p.147). Such backfiring of blanket generalizations against case evidence is further exacerbated when he discusses contemporary mass mobilizations in Slovenia[11], B&H and Macedonia in the fourth chapter. Mujanović does not in effect develop a comparison; he seems to have chosen the cases simply for their contemporality, to be treated as evidence of an upcoming democratic storm in the region. This is unfortunate, since much could be learned from their careful comparison, though it would probably again suggest divergences rather than commonalities. For instance, I would argue it was no accident that mass mobilisation in Slovenia has accelerated the emergence of a new Left parliamentary actor, while in FRY Macedonia the main benefactor of mass mobilizations is the centre-left SDSM – the old, corrupt elite in Mujanović’s terms.

On face value, Mujanović rejects the standard democratization framework of gradual consolidation through institutionalization, and he is fond of invoking radical conceptions which suggest that democracy occurs only in eruptive episodes when the People confront the regime. However, as illustrated by the following quote, his political vision is more accurately portrayed as advocating good old representative democracy:

‘the substantive democratization of the Western Balkans requires that local civil society realize and make the shift towards antagonistic, popular opposition to the existing elite and that such opposition is, in turn, necessary to eventually produce new parliamentary representatives’. p.144

In Mujanović’s political vision for the region, emerging civil society actors should be helped by the liberal international community to take power and become the new elite that will govern these societies in a more participatory manner than the kleptocratic elites who are in place now. He is therefore rehearsing a familiar argument for bringing democracy to backward societies, and in this aspect his discussion comes close to conservativism. This is further accentuated by the fact that he declaratively takes on an explicitly anti-Orientalist stance, but the dramatic style of his book relies heavily on metaphors of blood and soil, evoking emotions of fury, chaos, trauma, fear and despair. He portrays the Balkans as a ‘social time bomb with a short fuse and in search of a light’ (p.136) where ‘it seems only a matter of time before some enterprising revanchist pulls that trigger or lights this fuse on the region as a whole’ (p.139). Not only does this language perpetuate the Orientalist image of the Balkans as the powder keg of Europe, but it situates the discussion about social movements within conservative functionalist approaches to social movements that portray mass mobilizations as irrational mobs, born of despair and capable only of disruption and chaos.

In contrast, a radical democratic interpretation, had Mujanović consequentially implemented one, would have articulated a political vision in which social movements develop capabilities through which people are mobilized into forms of democratic political participation which contest existing political practices, articulate common objectives, and develop channels of political engagement. Such a perspective would argue that contentious politics fosters modes of democratic learning which over time engender ever growing numbers of activist citizens[12] that refuse to bow before corrupt elites.

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[1] “Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House review – tell-all burns all”, the Guardian, Jan 5, 2018, available at:  https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2018/jan/05/fire-and-fury-inside-the-trump-white-house-michael-wolff-review

[2] Page numbers as in the manuscript, not in the printed book version of the text.

[3] Dolenec, Danijela (2013) Democratic Institutions and Authoritarian Rule in Southeast Europe, ECPR Press

[4] Eurostat GDP per capita in PPS, 2007- 2016, available at

http://ec.europa.eu/eurostat/tgm/table.do?tab=table&init=1&language=en&pcode=tec00114&plugin=1

[5] Slovenia Statistical office, Migration Changes http://www.stat.si/StatWeb/en/News/Index/6016

[6] Bohle, Dorothee and Greskovits, Bela (2013) Capitalist Diversity on Europe’s Periphery, Cornell University Press

[7] Vachudova, Milada (2005) Europe Undivided: Democracy, Leverage, and Integration After Communism, Oxford University Press

[8] Levitsky, Steven and Lucan A. Way (2010) Competitive Authoritarianism: Hybrid Regimes after the Cold War, Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press

[9] For an overview of literature on external democracy promotion see Merkel (2011) Transformacija političkih sustava, Zagreb: Fakultet političkih znanosti, or in German (2010) Systemtransformation. Eine Einführung in die Theorie und Empirie der Transformationsforschung

[10] Vachudova, see footnote 6; see also Schimmelfennig and Sedelmeier (eds.) The Europeanization of Central and Eastern Europe, Ithaca: Cornell University Press

[11] Mujanović’s treatment of the Slovenian case is factually incorrect. The protests did not start in Ljubljana as he claims, but in Maribor, and they were not initially demanding “genuinely systemic change” (p.153). According to Toplišek and Thomassen (2017: 1384), “they were spurred by corruption charges against the mayor of Maribor, and later intensified by the release of an anti-corruption commission report accusing the then prime minister, Janez Janša, of having failed to report assets”.

[12] Isin, Engin F. (2009). ‘Citizenship in flux: the figure of the activist citizen’, Subjectivity, 29 pp. 367–388.

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