Authoritarian Populism

in Transitional Democracies of Western Balkans


Ljubomir Danailov FRCKOSKI

Faculty of Law “Iustinianus Primus”, Saints Cyril and Methodius University in Skopje


Abstract: The present text is dealing with a new form of populism, namely authoritarian populism in countries of the Western Balkans. The big picture of reforms processes taking place in some of them in a 10 year period toward the EU enlargement finished with more authoritarianism than democracy. The EU technocratic officials miss the real conclusions in this situation, and turned out to be supporters of the new generation of authoritarian rulers who are impressed more by Putin than EU-values. Brussels’ conclusion that something is wrong in this region is not followed by a scrupulous analysis of what is going on and in which direction! Bureaucrats generally underestimate the seriousness of authoritarian populism as an “alternative” to democracy in the region.


Keywords: authoritarian, populism, democracy, leadership, government by law.




Populism is today an important topic in Europe, in different societies and degrees. In the developed democratic world, such a topic is a topic about the entering of the extreme right in the mainstream politics, like Le Pen in France, Geerd Wilder in the Netherlands, the clownish populism of Berlusconi in Italy, or leftist mushroom populist Pepe’s movements and others. There, it is a matter of serious pressure on the institutions of democracy (the outcome of which is uncertain).

In contrast to that and such a case, authoritarian populism in the countries in transition, especially in the Western Balkans represents a danger of completely warping the young democratic institutions in the very beginning of their establishment. This populism appears as a lethal threat to them and to democracy too, especially a threat to the rule of law and human rights.

There are several common themes among these cases of populism from different settings: immigration, minorities (in a word “the others”), nationalism, anti-Europeanism, etc. are not sufficient reasons to ignore the large picture, the substantial difference and power of each of them to individually endanger the institutions of democracy.   


Clear and well-known are the bases on which populism in transitional democracies occurs: The existence of an illiberal society framework, with the burden of communism and single-party culture of statism, often associated with nationalism and bad history towards ethnic minorities and the religious diversity of the “other”; Operating of Irresponsible political elites, which take the easier means of political mobilization on the line of ethnic homogeneity (instead of the civil society context), fear and conspiracies directed toward imaginary-specific enemy, the “other”; On-going economic crisis, corruption, and collective culture of “letting the state solve everything”; Economic markets distorted by the ruling party and state penetration, corruption, and absence of any predictable legal certainty. Absence of entrepreneurship culture and initiatives; Cynicism of the ruling elites towards democratic values, and especially towards values ​​such as human rights and the set of criteria required to come closer to the EU (as their symbol). Their skilful utilization and construction of a complete authoritarian system with “European money”, keeping the rhetoric of “coming closer” (anti-European Europeanism) in a single Limbo; Breaking up of the civil society sector by organized state intrusion in it and filling this sector with division along the lines of patriots and traitors; Obsession with the media and imagined policies of populism - the media are becoming a constitutive part of the organization of power of the authoritarian populism (Giorgio Agamben)[1]; Finally, unclear strategy and tactics of the EU diplomacy towards baking up its own values (especially Copenhagen criteria) during the process of enlargement in transitional countries and hesitancy in the use of coercive diplomacy (more stick than carrots). This hesitation is used by skilful autocrats for developing the culture of cynicism and dissatisfaction with “EU-values” among a broad segment of the population. Also the clientelistic principle of the EU (some of the EU countries) towards the Western Balkans comes to the surface. Finally, there is the easy exploitation of the entire project of enlargement and it being placed under other priorities of the EU.  

 In the region of the Western Balkans, there are different degrees of developed authoritarian populism: from Macedonia, where the system has been completed (in the last 7 years), to Serbia where the elements of the system can be detected in the judiciary, academies, etc... Montenegro, Albania under Berisha’s rule, Kosovo, and Bosnia too (a broader region of Hungary, Turkey). 

The global shape of authoritarian populism is hard to spot at a first glance. However, it has penetrated everywhere and therefore a common EU strategy towards this phenomenon is necessary and sustainable. Such a strategy is the only guarantee of the success of real reform in these countries.


What are the characteristics of the authoritarian populism of the Balkans (should we name it - cannibalistic populism)?  

Like populism in a broader sense, authoritarian populism is not a concept of coherent policies. It is more like a bag that collects imagined policies. In that sense, it is a patchwork, but it is characterized by a specifically connected political dogma: first, it exploits the thesis that “it is closely related to the people”. That is the key and the connecting tissue of so diverse policies or imagined policies, so that they can be presented in a single party platform.

The second part of that political dogma is the well-known anti-intellectualism, in other words: the elites are buried in their own trenches and are corrupt, so “they do not hear” the voice of the people.    

But carefully, authoritarian leaders of this transitional type are today more shrewd than historical examples, so there populism is fully procedural (by this and in this, it prevents the opposition from attacking, especially the Social-democracy, which is procedural in the history of its creation).

This type of populism develops an undemocratic proceduralism (authoritarian or empty proceduralism: Alain Badiou, Slavoj Zizek, Giorgio Agamben). Everything is in accordance with the law - and the law is in accordance with them[2]. It opposes legalism against legitimacy of the law and especially of the Constitution as such.

Such type of populism achieves this objective in such a manner that it makes procedures and laws with two combined techniques:

The first one is the production of a huge number of laws, and a vast legislation. This legislation is often overlapping and internally controversial - but this has been done so intentionally, so that the instrument of application and interpretation of the laws is in the hands of the administration and only of the administration. Thus, the presumption of innocence and honesty of the citizen disappears. Everybody is “guilty”, as the law is violated by somebody somewhere (Kafkaesque situation), but this guilt has still not been processed and is at the mercy of the administration when it will be done so.

The second technique is the vagueness of the key legal norms. What is legal and what is punishable is not clear and things change all the time. Again, the basic demiurge of the implementation of such vagueness legislations is the government and the administration.  

The ability of such populism to draw European money for legislative projects (and their intensive rhetoric softens toward various Euro-officials claims and suggestions) - and at the same time to remain the same, or to strengthen its authoritarian power, makes it a cynic as to European values, and Europe as political actor. They use EU-officials focusing on legislation as key weakness ​​and it openly calls for the legitimacy of such fraud.

The result is that on the spot we have a double reality. Some kind of sub-rules under which you could only interpret formal rules and informal rules knowing which person could solve everyday problems. Those sub rules matter, and not the formal ones!  I could push this argument further and say: the fact that we are talking only of “problems” that these countries have on the path to EU (legislation level) and do not see this double reality of developed authoritarianism – there is the most significant success.  

The primary purpose of authoritarian populism (something you clearly identify and recognize) is its attack upon the independent institutions of constitutionalism (the Constitution). Here, it is lethally consistent.

Authoritarian leaders with institutions create “room of mirrors”, or “room of echoes”, destroying the independent position of the institutions and make them movable mirrors that portray and reflect the shape of the leader towards each of them. There is total arbitrariness in their operation based on party-leader instructions.

A separate devastating attack is made (and completed in Macedonia) on the judiciary. The judiciary is completely partisan and highly unqualified. The Constitutional Court is also a special target of such devastation.

In brief, as Alain Badiou would say, it is a matter of dreadful misunderstanding of the procedure and its meanings, which should be the rule of law[3].

 The second clear difference of this regional authoritarianism from historical predecessors is the very obsession with the media.

Since we have said that its policies are “simulacrums”, finally they depend on their display to the public (rather than accomplishment). That is why the media is a key tool to this policy. Here the media (according to Agamben) is not only an instrument of the government, but also a constitutive pillar of the power of such a government. Through them, the power is consolidated and carried into effect[4].  

Hence, proponents of such populism are so preoccupied with the freedom and control of all possible media. They do not make any compromises whatsoever.

Here there should be the strongest EU counter-game.

Next, authoritarian populism does not believe in elections, even though it is obsessed with them and turns everything into election campaign (election paradox). It believes only in its verification at the elections and in no other results whatsoever, and especially not in the plurality of options and alternatives. Hence, it is so obsessed with abuse of the police at elections, electoral lists, corruption, and blackmail of the administration at elections, and with other electoral fraudulent activities.

In transitology, there is the thesis that in transitional countries, after 4 electoral rounds, the electoral culture will be probably consolidated. In our examples after 14 electoral rounds – they still have not developed electoral culture.

In order to attain success in this objective, this populism generates the next dangerous phenomenon. It occupies the public space and fully contaminates it with partisan, abrasive speech - creating permanent lines of division of and among the citizens (and even when it is not necessary) along party lines that become bloodthirsty. The public space is completely “under adrenaline” being in a constantly conflictive situation. The regime channels this adrenalin and controls/directs toward detecting traitors and spies, while appealing at the same time for the organic unity of the people under its leadership. The system is turned fully into a majoritarianism, which is not a democracy, and especially not the rule of law. 

At this point, the authoritarian populism in the Balkans aims to repeat the position, as defined by Carl Schmitt, for the people as non-political mass that strives towards organic unity (the Lacanian lost object) - a unity which has an ideal object, a “zero point” somewhere in the past, when the entire nation had “been together” in harmony. That place has been lost and with the help of the dictator, it should be brought back. In this respect, authoritarian populism is anti-liberal, anti-individualistic and anti-democratic, irrational, culturally regressive – zombifying.

The governing party of authoritarian populism aims (if it has been successful) to convert itself into a movement of such lost unity of the nation. It is a classic example, according to Agamben, of the crisis of democracy and the policy and implementation of Schmitt’s thesis about the people as a non-political formation who have a corporate state. Their main action in that position is to search for and eradicate enemies outside and inside[5].

What I consider the most dangerous element of the authoritarian populism of the Balkans is its ability to create its own people, i.e., not to depend on the free will of the voters, but to create its own voters as such. Through violence and fear, conspiracy theories, preparing its own people-victim of neighbouring countries – it penetrates and transforms violence and repression into “values” (like in the movie “The Alien” in the intestines of the stuffed segment of the individual-mob- people). It enables the reproduction of populism on longer term.

 Notably, such populism manages to sell its own story connecting it with history and with fear (the fear of the lost unity)[6].  Such populism makes this, by definition and formula, by searching for roots in the past, with a policy of selective, most often forged memories. The power of that operation should not be underestimated! (Let me remind you of the text by Jacques Derrida, Archive Fever, 1996)[7].

The intention is to re-interpret history in order to get verification of the role of authoritarianism presently and in the future. Control over the archives and books used in education gives it power in the context of re-reading and re-assessing history[8].

Authoritarian populism produces a particular flashback in history. Most often than not it is done in the context of a remote past (it skips recent history) and such populism requires the establishment of a zero point at the starting unity of the nation which has been lost (Lacanian lost object)[9].

It produces political mythology (the examples of Gruevski, Orban, and Erdogan) into two controversial myths: the heroic myth and the myth of the victim (all Balkan nations have such a logic of a victimized nation, not willing to compromise, they are harsh with minorities, and subject to manipulation about conspiracies).

History has been cut into pieces and it has been decided which of them will be considered important and glorified as the ultimate fantasy. Such history must make discontinuity with everything previous and be based on the “zero point” of the said national harmony somewhere in the remotest past. Then, from that point in history, there is a construction of a mystic bridge connecting such a point with the heroic dictatorship of today as a continuation or revival of that heroic age. This is the construction, the product which is the ideological basis of authoritarian populism and which is being sold, in the meantime, to the crushed and intimidated citizen.  (In the case of Erdogan, it is going back to the long-ago glorious sultans; in the case of Orban, it is a historic leap backwards, via the Habsburgs, to the Asian four ancestors of the Hungarian tribes; for Gruevski, it means antiquity and Alexander the Great).

Quite interesting, all these examples of phantasm have an anti-European flavour. None of them is of European history (which exists with their nations respectively). The orientation is toward some pure and heroic primordial civilization that created them out of nothing (ab nihilo) - such examples of phantasm contain contempt towards the present European discourse. They repeat the sidelined dream for “penetration into the whore of Babylon, Europe”, crushing it, showing the proper place, and getting what is deserved (a classic pornographic dream).

Let me conclude. Authoritarian populism is dangerous because of its ability to reproduce inside people, through crime and repression (trading democracy and freedom for safety), the “values” of a zombified individual and zombified mob. Thus, the proponents of this populism secure “their own people” and hence their own (political) reproduction. The first result of this trend is peoples’ dissatisfaction and disconnection from the “EU values” they show on public polls and elections.

Thus, an absurd situation is created: there exists the regime and its dark, perverted side (which the regime itself produces). There is no credible democratic alternative.

Rulers of this kind are selling their policy surprisingly successfully to Eurocrats - working together on the policy of enlargement!? They find the fabulous G-point of EU policy-fears in the region of the Western Balkans: security before democracy. In addition, the result is the stabilocracy of the authoritarian rulers, too long tolerated to abuse the rights of their own people and which developed itself into a system of autocratic populism – challenged EU values - policy in a substance. 

An important number of EU officials working on the Western Balkans are obviously unable to construct from the data they collect a better global picture of how the entire autocratic machine works. They are not “cold administrators” but naive benefactors who move around like elephants in a porcelain store.


What could be the exit strategy of the EU, faced with such a development of events?   

The first thing I must say is that this “new strategy’’ does not demand more money from those now spent, by the EU and it does not demand any further human resources. However, it certainly demands a better knowledge of what it is happening “down below” and a better plan!

The EU should seriously take into consideration its own values ​​that it promotes and demands to be achieved by the candidate countries. It is OK to grant time for adaptation, but it is not OK to make rotten compromises on substantial points. That especially means the first packet of Copenhagen criteria. These values ​​will be taken seriously, if the EU keeps open this first packet until the very end of the enlargement of a particular country. From the previous experience it is clear that criteria are very hard to fulfil in reality (especially rule of law, freedom of expressions, independence of the judiciary, basics of the merit system in administration...). That needs a permanent enhanced plan for monitoring the reforms and a new plan for aid and for intervention in some of them. 

In my opinion, a few hot spots: freedom of expression and of the media; autonomy of the judiciary and of all independent control bodies; merit system in the state administration – included new methodology of interventions: possibility to consider judiciary board for the selection of judges and implementation standards, intervention in commissions for recruitment in administration, special monitoring, freedom of media and missuses of budget money for pre elections campaigning, etc.).   

In relation to this particular segment of reforms, the EU must not make any compromises whatsoever. The EU should even blackmail, make pressure, get involved, penalize, and finally kick out, if necessary.  That means the conditionality approach must be improved and enhanced with abetter prioritization of controlling issues and, secondly, strict monitoring and control: what is the reality of the implementation of new pro-European legislature in a particular country? 

Additionally, the EU needs to offer (sometimes to insist on accepting) support to these countries in a form of soft arbitration, insisting that sovereignty means serving the citizens of the country, not authoritarian regimes.



AGAMBEN, Giorgio, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, Stanford University Press, Stanford, 1998.

AGAMBEN, Giorgio, Language, Media and Politics, Public open lecture for the students and faculty of the European Graduate School EGS Media and Communication Studies department program Saas-Fee Switzerland, 2011, [].

ALBERTAZZI, Daniele, Duncan McDONNELL (eds.), Twenty-First Century Populism: The Spectre of Western European Democracy, Palgrave Macmillan, New York, 2008.

ARDITI, Benjamin, Politics on the Edges of Liberalism: Difference, Populism, Revolution, Agitation, Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh, 2007.

BADIOU, Alain, “We Need a Popular Discipline: Contemporary Politics and the Crisis of the Negative”, Critical Inquiry, Vol. 34, No. 4, 2008, pp. 645-659.

BADIOU, Alain, Alberto TOSCANO, “An Essential Philosophical Thesis: ‘It Is Right to Rebel against the Reactionaries’”, Positions: East Asia Cultures Critique, Vol. 13, No. 3, 2005, pp. 669-677.

BETZ, Hans-Georg, Radical Right-Wing Populism in Western Europe, St Martin’s Press, New York, 1994.

BETZ, Hans-Georg, Stefan IMMERFALL (eds.), The New Politics of the Right: Neo-Populist Parties and Movements in Established Democracies, Palgrave Macmillan, USA, 1998.

CAPUTO, John D., The Prayers and Tears of Jacques Derrida: Prayers and Tears of Jacques Derrida: Religion Without Religion, Indiana University Press, Bloomington & Indianapolis, 1997.

DE RAADT, Jasper, David HOLLANDERS, Andre KROUWE, “Varieties of Populism”, paper prepared for the panel “Populism and the New Europe” at the ECPR Second Pan-European Conference on EU Politics, Implications of A Wider Europe: Politics, Institutions and Diversity, Bologna, Italy, 24-26 June 2004.

DERRIDA, Jacques, Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression, Chicago University Press, Chicago, 1996.

HELD, Joseph (ed.), Populism in Eastern Europe: Racism, Nationalism and Society, East European Monographs, Columbia University Press, 1996.

KUZMINSKI, Adrian, Fixing the System: A History of Populism, Ancient and Modern, Continuum International Publishing Group, London & New York, 2008.

LACLAU, Ernesto, On Populist Reason, Verso, London, New York, 2005.

LACLAU, Ernesto, Politics and Ideology in Marxist Theory: Capitalism, Fascism, Populism, New Left Books, London, 1977.

MANOFF, Marlene, “Theories of the Archive from Across the Disciplines”, Libraries and the Academy, Vol. 4, No.1, 2004, pp. 9-25.

McGUIGAN, Jim, Cultural Populism, Routledge, New York, 2003.

McKIM, Robert, Jeff McMAHAN (eds.), The Morality of Nationalism, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1997.

MEYER, Thomas, Media Democracy: How the Media Colonize Politics, Polity Press, Cambridge, 2002.

MOORE, Margaret, The Ethics of Nationalism, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2001.

PANIZZA, Francisco (ed.), Populism and the Mirror of Democracy, Verso, London, 2005.

POSTEL, Charles, The Populist Vision, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2009.

RICOEUR, Paul, Memory History, Forgetting, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2004.

RORTY, Richard, Philosophy as Cultural Politics: Philosophical Papers, Cambridge University Press, New York, 2007.

ROSZAK, Theodore, The Making of a Counter Culture: Reflections on the Technocratic Society and Its Youthful Opposition, Anchor Books, New York, 1969.

SARAT, Austin, Thomas R. KEARNS (eds.), Cultural Pluralism, Identity Politics and the Law, University of Michigan Press, USA, 1999.

TAGGART, A. Paul, Populism: Concepts in the Social Sciences, Open University Press, Buckingham, 2000.

VOSLOO Robert, “Archiving Otherwise: Some Remarks on Memory and Historical Responsibility”, Studia Historiae Ecclesiasticae, Vol. 31, No. 2, 2005, pp. 379-399.

ZIZEK, Slavoj, Living in the End Times, Verso, London, 2010.

ZIZEK, Slavoj, O Nasilju , Ljevak, Zagreb, 2008.

ZIZEK, Slavoj, O Verovanju, Algoritam, Zagreb, 2005.

ZIZEK, Slavoj, The Ticklish Subject: The Absent Center of Political Ontology, Verso, London & New York, 1999.

[1] Giorgio AGAMBEN, Language, Media and Politics, Public open lecture for the students and faculty of the European Graduate School EGS Media and Communication, Studies department program Saas-Fee Switzerland, 2011, [].

[2] Slavoj ZIZEK, The Ticklish Subject: The Absent Center of Political Ontology, Verso, London & New York, 1999, pp. 109-148; Alain BADIOU, Alberto TOSCANO, “An Essential Philosophical Thesis: ‘It Is Right to Rebel against the Reactionaries’”, Positions: East Asia Cultures Critique, Vol. 13, No. 3, 2005, pp. 669-677; Giorgio AGAMBEN, Language, Media and Politics, Public open lecture for the students and faculty of the European Graduate School EGS Media and Communication, Studies department program Saas-Fee Switzerland, 2011, [].

[3] Alain BADIOU, “We Need a Popular Discipline: Contemporary Politics and the Crisis of the Negative”, Critical Inquiry, Vol. 34, No. 4, 2008, pp. 645-659 and Alain BADIOU, Alberto TOSCANO, “An Essential Philosophical Thesis…cit.”.

[4] Giorgio AGAMBEN, Language, Media and Politics…cit.

[5] Giorgio AGAMBEN, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, Stanford University Press, Stanford, 1998, p. 72.

[6] Daniele ALBERTAZZI, Duncan McDONNELL (eds.), Twenty-First Century Populism: The Spectre of Western European Democracy, Palgrave Macmillan, New York, 2008, p. 219.

[7] Jacques DERRIDA, Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression, Chicago University Press, Chicago, 1996, p. 4.

[8] Ibidem.

[9] Ernesto LACLAU, On Populist Reason, Verso, London, New York, 2005, pp. 67-119.