BALKAN BLOG: Divided, weak and doomed to fail

BALKAN BLOG: Divided, weak and doomed to fail
Actions by Montenegro's opposition Democratic Front, including protests that turned violent in October 2015 (pictured) have not helped the party to make headway with voters.
By Denitsa Koseva in Sofia April 12, 2018

Almost 30 years after the fall of Communism and despite their ambitions of Euro-Atlantic integration, many Southeast European countries have failed to establish political pluralism and are dominated by single parties and their leaders. This is mostly because of the tools successfully employed by the ruling parties, but the opposition has to bear its share of the responsibility as the numerous small parties seem incapable of setting aside their personal ambitions and working together to beat the status quo.

Montenegro, which is holding presidential elections on April 15, is the most acute example of a hopeless opposition as politics in the tiny country have been dominated by one man, the veteran politician Milo Djukanovic, and his ruling Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS) for nearly 30 years.

There is little doubt that Djukanovic will win the upcoming election, putting him back in the presidency for the second time on top of his four terms as prime minister, even though for the first time in Montenegro’s history of independence almost all the opposition parties have decided to back a single candidate, Mladen Bojanic. 

However, this move came too late as opposition parties fought for their own interests for most of the past year, and do not seem united by anything other than the hope of finally ousting Djukanovic. “[T]he opposition is divided between those who are still angry about the Nato bombings of 1999 and are pro-Russian, and parties which oppose Djukanovic but not the West,” Michael Taylor senior analyst for Eastern Europe at Oxford Analytica, tells bne IntelliNews.

Djukanovic, on the other hand, is the West’s man. Since the beginning of his political career he has made Montenegro’s Euro-Atlantic integration his top political priority.

Boutique formations

In many cases newcomers on Southeast Europe’s political stage seem opportunistic and not driven by any particular ideology or beliefs. There are some exceptions with good potential, but even they can hardly beat the status quo due to lack of infrastructure and influence.

“[Big] parties have built the support infrastructure. They have offices across the country, which a lot of the new movements don’t have, they tend to be just based in the capital or larger cities … They have the potential, but they don’t necessarily have the support infrastructure,” Cvete Koneska of Control Risks tells bne IntelliNews.

In Bulgaria, for example, former justice minister Hristo Ivanov set up the Yes Bulgaria party prior to the March 2017 general election, claiming that it can fight corruption and break the status quo. The party easily grabbed the support of younger people who protested in Sofia in the summer and autumn of 2013, angered by the parliament’s decision to appoint controversial businessman Delyan Peevski as head of the state security agency. However, this was not enough for the new party to secure seats in the parliament, and it is now trying to unite several small opposition parties, hoping to gather more voters.

Yes Bulgaria is typical of new opposition parties in the region, which are located in big cities and are betting on ideas that cannot beat the populistic appeals of the much stronger and more experienced ruling parties.

“[P]ro-reform, anti-corruption parties are strong in the capital but not in the countryside, where parties can establish a client-patron relationship with voters. In Bulgaria, the pro-reform vote is small, as the fate of the Reformist Bloc (a disparate alliance of several parties) shows,” Taylor says.

Koneska agrees and says that the “social media give the impression that the new parties have a stable network, but in practice their reach is very superficial compared to the more complex apparatus the more established parties have — with local branches, with local media, with the administration, with businesses and so on, which makes them much more permanent and more difficult to dislodge”.

Feeding the status quo

Ruling parties are also very successful in presenting themselves as the least worst alternative and, as Petar Cholakov, chief assistant at the Social Control, Deviation and Conflicts department at the Sofia-based Institute for the Study of Societies and Knowledge, says, “The apathy of voters feeds the status quo.” 

Most Southeast European parties in power use tactics summed up in Florian Bieber’s “Ten rules by a 21st-century Machiavelli for the Balkan Prince”. Tactics outlined by Bieber, professor of Southeast European Studies and director of the Centre for Southeast European Studies at the University of Graz, include controlling elections before election day, controlling the majority of the media, talking about the fight against corruption without taking any serious steps, a lack of ideology and unfulfilled promises for change in people’s lives.

Bulgaria differs somewhat from its neighbours in the Western Balkans as it has three main parties dominating the political life. Yet in other ways it is similar: all three parties — Citizens for the European Development of Bulgaria (Gerb) which is currently in power, the Bulgarian Socialist Party and the Movement for Rights and Freedoms (DPS) — have all been accepted as part of the status quo by both voters and political analysts. Attempts by new, fresh faces like those behind Yes Bulgaria to break the establishment seem doomed to fail as they come up against the powerful ruling elite.

“On one hand, new formations with such claims [to beat the status quo] appear. On the other hand, the party system’s crisis, the lack of success of the current players to mobilise a significant part of the voters shows that there is a potential for new political forces … to play the role of an alternative,” Cholakov tells bne IntelliNews.

However, he adds that the country could again witness a project arising from “unparalleled, unstoppable by anything political populism”, which would not change the status quo, instead blending with it and serving its needs. “The fate of such projects is to be like fireworks – they shine brightly and effectively on the political sky for a short time and without changing anything,” Cholakov says.

Pressing the wrong buttons 

Another problem for newly established opposition parties in SEE is that most are personality-dominated rather than focused on ideas, and they often lose credibility as their leaders seem driven by one main goal — to personally benefit from gaining power. This has been the situation with parties from the Reformist Bloc in Bulgaria to Bosnia’s Social Democrats (SDP). 

“The Reformist Bloc was seduced and destroyed by [Bulgaria’s Prime Minister Boyko] Borissov, but with the active participation of its leaders. Some of them directly agreed to get on board — to participate in power, others hesitated and did not take clear, firm positions regarding GERB,” Cholakov says.

In Bosnia & Herzegovina and in Serbia, opposition parties also seem unable to go beyond the personal ambitions of their leaders or press the right buttons for voters.

Torn by political conflicts, Bosnia has been dominated by ethnic parties after the Social Democrats (SDP) failed to establish themselves as a reliable multiethnic alternative.

“In the 2010 elections, the SDP, which was the successor party to the League of Communists in Yugoslavia, was the strongest party, but four years later lost more than 80% of its voters thanks to leadership and policies that were perceived as egocentric, corrupt and arrogant, garnering just 6.7% of the vote across [Bosnia],” Taylor says. 

In neighbouring Serbia, the opposition Democratic Party (DS) also seems to be insufficiently nationalistic. “Although DS has suffered splits (notably when former President [Boris] Tadic left to form a new party), its main problem is that it is regarded by many Serbs as insufficiently patriotic as regards Kosovo,” Taylor added.

The DS suffered a humiliating defeat in the Belgrade municipal elections in March, failing for the first time in its history to pass the 5% threshold to take seats in the city assembly. Meanwhile, President Aleksandar Vucic’s SNS scored a convincing victory, helped by the fragmented opposition. It was a similar story in the 2017 presidential election when Vucic took an easy first round victory as the opposition vote was split between a couple of leading candidates. 

Street politics

Street politics are on the rise in some Balkan countries as opposition parties seek to attract more attention and support, having failed to do so through more orthodox channels. 

In the last three years Montenegro has seen not only violent street protests but also a failed coup attempt aimed at assassinating Djukanovic during the October 2016 general election. “The attempted coup of October 2016 could stem in part from the hopelessness of opposing Djukanovic by constitutional means, as he has been in power since 1991,” Taylor says.

The protests were staged by the main opposition party, the pro-Russian Democratic Front (DF), which is also alleged to have been involved in the thwarted coup attempt. The DF is a coalition of parties that was set up with one main goal: to oust Djukanovic and the DPS from power. It uses aggressive rhetoric and openly opposes the country’s membership in Nato and the EU. It is rumoured that the party is financed by Moscow and Russia has several times attempted to influence the Montenegrin prosecution to stop trials against its leaders.

However, the party has scored a series of own goals. Its opposition to membership in Nato and the EU has pushed voters away, and most of its leaders are now on trial either for their involvement in the coup plot or for the clashes in 2015. One of them, Milan Knezevic, has already been sentenced to four months in jail for his participation in the clashes.

In Kosovo, the nationalist Vetevendosje party has also taken an aggressive and sometimes violent stance. The party is well known for letting off smoke bombs in the parliament on several occasions as it sought to block a vote on a border demarcation deal with Montenegro. 

Vetevendosje opposes any international involvement in Kosovo’s internal affairs, and is demanding that Pristina take a more aggressive position in its negotiations with Serbia. It is also against the privatisation of state-owned companies.

The campaign against the border deal with Montenegro ultimately failed; despite a last ditch smoke bomb attack on March 21, legislation ratifying the deal was passed the same day as MPs returned to the chamber and carried on with the session. Vetevendosje has managed to present itself as a radical alternative to the parties currently in power, unexpectedly taking second place in the 2017 general election. More recently, however, the party has been riven by internal conflict, making its future uncertain. 

“Vetevendosje looked to be a possible breakthrough party, but has now split,” Taylor noted.

But it’s not only opposition parties that resort to violence in their desperate quest for power. Last April, supporters of Macedonia’s conservative VMRO-DPMNE party, which had been in office since 2006, stormed the parliament in an attempt to stop the formation of a new government by the rival Social Democratic Union of Macedonia (SDSM). VMRO-DPMNE narrowly won the December 2016 snap election, but failed to form a government as it was unable to secure the support of ethnic Albanian parties, which eventually backed the SDSM. In the aftermath of the attack, which resulted in injuries to MPs including Macedonia’s now prime minister Zoran Zaev, prosecutors have indicted dozens of people, among them a number of VMRO-DPMNE MPs. Now in opposition, VMRO-DPMNE has sought to obstruct the parliament’s work by staging a lengthy boycott. 

The winning formula

If an opposition party in SEE wants to break the status quo, it needs to get a charismatic leader with drive and determination, Taylor says. Another thing that could make people vote for a new party, he believes, would be a serious economic downturn leading to popular dissatisfaction with the government economic management, or blatant corruption — revelations of top level corruption in Macedonia contributed to the eventual ousting of VMRO-DPMNE though in other countries opposition parties have been less successful in capitalising on this theme. 

According to Koneska, people would vote for a new party for pragmatic reasons. “People vote for pragmatic reasons — for jobs, for contracts, or small subsidies for farmers — the usual things that people need. If someone else comes in government and offers these things, loyalties will shift,” she says.

However, as long as the ruling parties use the tools at their disposal to stay on top as long as possible — including controlling the media, appealing to populist ideas and balancing between EU aspirations and rising or traditionally high nationalistic moods — there is little scope for opposition parties to make headway.