UNC Panel Discussion Examined Authoritarianism in the Balkans
The UNC Center for Slavic, Eurasian and East European Studies (CSEEES) hosted a panel discussion on Nov. 13 on authoritarian regimes in the Balkans, a region of southeastern Europe that includes countries such as Serbia, Bosnia, Bulgaria, Croatia, Albania and Romania. The discussion ranged from the history of such regimes in this area to the role of the European Union in trying to ensure liberal democratic norms in these countries. After each panel member gave their remarks, audience members were invited to ask questions.
The panel, moderated by Dimitar Bechev, CSEEES research fellow, included Florian Bieber, director of the Center for Southeast European Studies at the University of Graz; Jelena Subotić, associate professor of political science at Georgia State University; Jasmin Mujanović, a fellow at the EastWest Institute; and Milada Vachudova, associate professor of political science at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Florian Bieber outlined the ways in which governments in Balkan states impinge on liberal democratic norms after democratic elections. He pointed out that many leaders of these regimes initially have the support of the Western powers of the EU, who see them as stabilizing forces who appear to be committed to integration into the European Union. According to Bieber, these governments ensure they remain in power through control of the media and undermining free and fair elections.
“The level of media freedom [in the Balkans] … is similar to that of the early 1990s,” Bieber remarked, referencing the final years of the communist regimes in the region.
Bieber also described how party loyalty can affect job security and the cost of utility bills. These are small ways, he says, that governments can appear committed to democracy while slowly undermining democratic norms and moving toward authoritarianism.
Jelena Subotić focused her remarks on Serbia and Croatia. She described how journalists in those countries cannot publish pieces critical of governing powers for fear of losing their jobs or being physically harmed. Scholars cannot study or research topics that the government finds threatening, such as whether Kosovo has a legitimate case to be an independent state. If they do, they are unlikely to ever get promoted and also risk being fired, as has happened to some professors at the University of Belgrade.
“There is a constant state of self-censorship… you know there are topics you can’t cover without fear of losing your job,” she said.
While Bieber focused on governmental illiberalization, Subotić described the illiberalization of civil society in Croatia since their admission to the EU, citing the banning of same-sex marriage and tests of “proper Catholicism” for academics, among others. She remarked that while all of this is happening, the EU appears “disinterested, distracted [and] doesn’t particularly care [about problems in the Balkans].”
Jasmin Mujanović followed by discussing the history of authoritarianism in the Balkans. He argued that nationalism and ethnic divisions are the driving factors in this trend, as they keep countries divided and more prone to authoritarian regimes. He described the Balkan regimes as “elastic authoritarianism,” where governments may change ideological positions from communism to far right nationalism, but the economic and political conditions of the country remain nearly the same.
He did, however, leave the door open to future change. “I do fundamentally believe that these regimes are prone to collapse,” Mujanović said.
Milada Vachudova presented on increasing polarization in the Balkans, especially over social issues such as immigration and LGBT rights. She noted that, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the best situation for most countries appeared to be to join the EU and gain access to the common market. As this sentiment became more prevalent among the general public, the former authoritarian governments of the communist era moderated their extreme positions to ensure their entry into the EU. Polarization occurred following the admission of Eastern European and Balkan states to the EU, as newly-democratic governments almost immediately began to backslide into illiberal democracy.
This event was part of the newly launched Forum on Southeast Europe, supported by the Center for Slavic, Eurasian, and East European Studies and the UNC Center for Global Initiatives.
January 23, 2023