There is a virus that is affecting every Western Balkan country. It is contagious, it is ravaging and it is responsible for the fact that the vast majority of people living in these countries won’t ever experience wealth or prosperity for which they work tirelessly every day. The virus is called captured state, and the prognosis is sadly sombre for most countries. A captured state is a state where private interest of selected few intertwines with every sphere of life. It is when a group of powerful and wealthy individuals gain political, economic and industrial monopoly, where the line between public institutions and private enterprises becomes invisible. Their goal is to fervently keep and expand their influence and incapacitate any true opposition to interrupt their unmatched reign. The most striking example of this is Montenegro, where the ruling party has been on power for an unrivalled 30 years. Even though the term state capture has only recently been used to describe the autocratic regimes in the Western Balkans, the virus has been steadily progressing for the last three decades and without external cures and internal pressures, it won’t go away.
Is it possible to have proper and sustainable development in a captured state? Yes, if you are the one pulling the strings for your own and your associates benefits. The mere fact that you are able to dictate all the rules and create an ambiance of untouchability, it is no wonder that you and your associates can profit on a daily basis. The state’s development is limited and oriented towards fulfilling the political and economic agenda, which has been carefully created to maintain the status quo. Construction of gigantic projects that are financed by suspicious investors (highways, enclosed settlements, tallest skyscrapers…), fabrication and misuse of facts, usage of certain economic data (GDP growth, inflation rates, direct foreign investments) that do not correlate with growth and prosperity of a nation and constant fuelling of ethnic, religious and even regional tensions are some of the main assets that the ruler of a captured state uses to remain in power. Even projects that are meant for the country’s development, i.e. the motorway Bar-Boljari in Montenegro or Belgrade Waterfront in Serbia, are the subject of divide in society.
For a worryingly long time no decisive and concrete criticism came out of Brussels towards the WB autocratic regimes, as it was masked in the EU’s bureaucratic language. The EU did state concise and clear measures, guidelines and recommendations for resolving issues in its “A credible enlargement perspective for the Western Balkans” which was released in February 2018, and has sharply increased its criticism and need for reforms in the last European Commission’s report. However, as the EU isn’t proactive to change the status quo and has too many issues in its own backyard, hardly any tangible change is to be seen on the horizon. Therefore, the regional autocrats are here to stay, for a while.
The most serious symptoms
In all, what can be done to disrupt the inner workings of a captured state? Let’s first see the biggest obstacles in the way of recovery. First of all, one of the symptoms of a captured state which prevents it from being easily cured is partitocracy, i.e. a political system where the political party is the centrepiece of all social, political and economic life in a country. Nothing is to be done without it knowing it or being involved. A system where all pertinent roles are taken by obedient party officials will never be taken down on elections simply because the succeeding party will do the same. This has been seen numerous times, both on local and national level throughout the Western Balkans.
Secondly, the utter lack of accountability is what further adds severity to the situation. If public officials can’t be responsible for their own wrongdoings while holding important positions, how can the rule of law be enforced? Thirdly, all of the core institutions that guarantee the territorial integrity, sovereignty and enforcement of law, i.e. police, military and judiciary are firmly in the hands of the ruling party and are ever increasing in the number, jurisdiction and recklessness. Fourthly, the public media outlets are captured and led by amicable employees that are willing to share the regime’s interpretation of reality. Fifthly, the ever presence of Us and Them division, in order to disallow any attempts of unified civil opinions which are damaging to the current state of affairs. And sixthly, the regime is constantly fuelled by suspicious financial sources and it is using its assets as a clear form of political corruption to solidify its position. There are more symptoms, but these ones are the most arduous to overcome.
Legitimising the regime of a captured state
Almost no scandal, affair or law violation can prevent the ruler or his associates from attaining the desired goal, which is to rule unrivalled. It’s every modern dictator’s dream to create a seemingly democratic state that superficially fosters European values and principles, but simultaneously that is able to crush institutionally (i.e. legally) or covertly any kind of criticism, meddling and investigative journalism and to tirelessly use the institutions to stay on power. A theatre for the masses must be created in order to disguise what is truly going on. Anyone who does some research can easily spot cracks and doubt the regime’s legitimacy, but they can and must never prove it. Those that criticise openly and point to all the regime’s flaws are targeted as enemies of the state and usurpers of the public domain and interests of the nation. It doesn’t matter if the criticism is there to help solve the burning issue of the country, just simply by writing and talking about genuine everyday problems can become a thorn in the eye for the regime. It is a state of constant public secrets, where almost anyone with some consciousness and self-awareness can join the dots, but if they publicly release their concerns, they would be relentlessly crushed by the regime’s machinery.
The machinery consists of government propaganda media outlets, and politicized institutions which are the main tool in the arsenal of any leader of a captured state. The law is interpreted by the needs of the regime, and what is evident is that the judicial system doesn’t enjoy institutional independence and is greatly abused. The same criteria do NOT apply for the same indictments by persons coming from different political aisles. Also, those without any influence or money feel the effectiveness of the judicial system coming onto them. However, associates and “friends of the regime” have their cases prolonged and eventually dropped, witnesses bribed or silenced, and if a sentence is needed to be issued due to the nature of the crime, the punishment will be lenient and inadequate. Or, they will be rewarded with a better position, or with a transfer to another country and given a clean plate and eventually even in some cases become diplomats.
Initiation of illegal demolition of settlement to make space for Belgrade Waterfront project by former Belgrade mayor, now finance minister Mr Siniša Mali, Hollywood-like escape from North Macedonia by its former president Mr Nikola Gruevski due to corruption allegations are just some of the cases that show the ineffectiveness of the judicial system in Western Balkan countries to exercise rule of law on current or former ruling party affiliates.
Sometimes however, the regime needs to intervene in order to stay in power. This is most evident on election days, where if the power is threatened, no rules apply and everything is allowed. Many serious affairs shocked the region, which unravelled all the soft and even hard power tools that the ruling elites are willing to use. Buying off ID cards, widespread corruption, lack of financial transparency of political parties, secure votes of public officials, orchestrating coups d’états on election day, disruption of social networks, “phantom” voters, dubious election lists and many other are just some of the examples of fraudulent election days in a captured state.
Curing the incurable
The possible cures come in different forms. The societies in captured states have limited political capacities and are unfamiliar with the concepts of political culture, civil unrests, disobedience and fight for civil rights. This is where the role of civil society is crucial, in order to instigate an infancy of political culture. By putting constant pressure and by following every single deed and activity done by captured institutions, cracks will surface, which subsequently must be used so that the legitimacy is always questioned. This will give rise to many civil activists who will feel less and less frightened to stand up to the captured institutions in order to pursue their objectives.
These objectives must be clear and achievable, in order for the pressure to be effective. If the critical mass is building up, a single switch can instigate a movement aimed at ensuring the implementation of democratic values and principles. This was the case during late winter and early spring throughout the region, but it failed due to many causes, mainly because of the inadequate leadership, bad decision making and failure to utilise the momentum. On the micro level there were success stories which showed how a group of apolitical, determined and goal-oriented people can be successful in the fight against the captured institutions. This was most evident in Romania, where hundreds of thousands of people rallied against the adoption of new laws that would make punishments for corruption a lot lenient and disproportionate. Due to the surmounting pressure, clear objectives and restlessness of the demonstrators, the protests were successful. This must be used as a good example on how the movement is to be organised in order to be successful on the macro level. After that, if the opposition truly wants amends and a shift in the way the country is run, it must pursue an election law that entails transparency and open lists.
Externally, the EU must put serious pressure on the regime to force reforms and implementation of adopted law, with a constant stick and carrot diplomacy. Even though the Union has too many issues to face for its own existence, it cannot allow that autocratic regimes continue existing in its neighbourhood, especially not in the Western Balkans, since these regimes would be ready to do anything to sustain their legitimacy. If needed, even a new conflict is not out of question. Therefore, a determined, firm and strict position towards the WB region is necessary, which will aim towards the establishment of the rule of law, fair and democratic elections and transparent and citizen-oriented institutions.
Even though the prognosis is bleak, citizens must be the creators of a more democratic, transparent and accountable political systems in the Western Balkans region. Determined civil society organisations, civil movements and activists are paving the way towards the desired goal of a modern democratic state. However, the road to recovery is extremely arduous and by no means will it be resolved soon. Some suggest that only via dialogue between the opposing sides a set of good guidelines and activities can be created. Some argue that no dialogue shall ever be commenced, as it further legitimises the autocratic regimes. In all, if the current situation is not addressed, the region will continue to face raising income inequality, brain drain, increasing public debts, scandals on a daily basis and a further distancing from the European values and principles for which it desperately craves for.
Text by Vasilije Krivokapić