Why Resurgent Balkan Populism Could Prove More Dangerous Than Donald Trump

Milorad Dodik
Republika Srpska President Milorad Dodik at a ceremony in Stanari near Doboj, Bosnia and Herzegovina, September 20, 2016. Serbian nationalism appears to be on the rise. Dado Ruvic/REUTERS

The arrival of 2017 in the Balkans has brought with it new strife, as populist leaders in the region keep the wounds of the 1990s bleeding. When Milorad Dodik, leader of the Republika Srpska—the Serbian region of Bosnia Herzegovina—held a Serbian statehood parade on January 9, Muslim Bosniaks and Croats were incensed. Not only was last year's referendum that approved the event deemed illegal by the constitutional court of Bosnia and Herzegovina, but the parade also coincided with the date the Serb entity declared its independence from Bosnia in 1992.

This display of resurging ethnic pride dredges up past horrors and is the most pressing cause for concern for the future of the Dayton Agreement. The tensions over the accord's future heightened even further when the U.S. Treasury Department sanctioned Dodik as punishment for his defiance of the court, stating that his refusal to abide by its ruling challenged the rule of law and threatens the peace agreement.

It should come as no surprise that the American government would go to such lengths to keep the peace. After all, it has not been so very long since the expulsion of non-Serbs from Serb-dominated areas sparked a war that killed 100,000 people and forced the world to watch the infamous massacre of 7,000 Muslims in Srebrenica. For Muslim Bosniaks and Croats in Republika Srpska, (i.e. 20 percent of the population), January 9 is a day to be lamented.

Sadly, in pandering to nationalist impulses and appropriating the politics of memory, Dodik is merely following in the footsteps of other Balkan politicians who revive historical grievances to cement their power and ward off criticism. Nor is the issue one-sided: two high-profile cases against Serb leaders Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic, both charged with carrying out genocide against Bosniaks and Croats, also provided ample opportunity for Bosnia's leaders to air old issues that highlighted the ethnic divisions that persist to this day.

Indeed, what is happening in Bosnia is a textbook example of the same populism that has taken hold in Russia, Turkey, and now even in the United States itself. Jan-Werner Müller, who teaches at Princeton, might have inadvertently offered the best description of the Balkan populist's playbook in writing about what had happened in America in November. According to Müller, this strain of populist politics feeds from "a symbolic construction of the real people," meant to instill a sense of common identity and whose singular voice is represented in one strong leader. This supposed authority the leader gets from representing the real people "trumps…all other sources of legitimate political authority, be it constitutional court, head of state, parliament, or local and state government."

Throughout the region, leaders have been employing this strategy for years to sideline inconvenient institutions and maintain their grip on power. In neighboring Montenegro, former Prime Minister Milan Dukanovic provides a classic example. Applying the logic of defining "his people," Dukanovic—whose history is littered with allegations of corrupt dealings—has repeatedly accused his political opponents of treacherous foreign ties and claimed over the course of his quarter-century in power that coups d'états were in the works against him. Even the country's application to join NATO, spearheaded by Dukanovic as part of his gradual reorientation toward the West, has left Montenegro bitterly divided. Opponents of the NATO project, unsurprisingly, have been presented as a fifth column bent on derailing Montenegro's integration into Europe.

After failing to clinch the majority vote in last year's general elections, Dukanovic again stoked fears about Russian influence and made allegations about a "foreign factor" in the elections. The ensuing national emergency allowed for numerous arrests of opposition leaders, causing observers to worry about an eventual outright banning of the opposition movement. Dukanovic has since resigned, but after decades in which he has polarized and personalized Montenegro's politics, the country remains split in his absence: amid allegations of electoral fraud, the new government formed by longtime Dukanovic confidante Dusko Markovic has been rejected as illegitimate by the opposition.

Elsewhere in the Balkans, polls are similarly aggravating already existing political cleavages. Elections held over Christmas in Macedonia ended in deadlock between the center-right VMRO-DPMNE ruling party and the opposition Social Democrats, with the right squeaking by to a thin majority after a dramatic re-run of a single village's election. The voting came after allegations last January that the government had been spying on thousands of journalists and other citizens and engaged in other acts of corruption. Further heightening tensions, the elections were delayed twice over allegations of fraud. In a supreme understatement, the OSCE criticized the campaign season as "characterized by public mistrust in institutions and the political establishment, and [there were] allegations of voter coercion."

Prior to the elections, VMRO-DPMNE leader and longtime prime minister Nikola Gruevski had taken Macedonia down on an nationalistic and authoritarian path before the wiretapping scandal finally forced him out of office. While in power, Gruevski sidelined civil institutions and accumulated power in the executive branch, leading both Freedom House and the EU to warn of state capture. In an act that fanned tensions with Macedonia's ethnic Albanian minority, Gruevski selected Johan Tarculovski, a former policeman convicted in the Hague of ordering the murder of Albanian civilians in 2001, to run for office. Provocations of this sort help the simmering antagonism between the two communities boil over and manifest itself in occasional outbursts of violence. Last year, for example, a four year old Albanian boy was left dead after being hit by a car in an alleged hate crime. The driver was an ethnic Macedonian.

Men like Dodik, Dukanovic, and Gruevski have built incredibly successful political careers with tactics that leave their constituencies divided and mutually resentful, perpetuating cycles of recrimination that go back well before the 1990s. Unfortunately, the "symbolic people" playbook they specialize in seems to be quite effective—not only in the Balkans, but elsewhere in Europe and across the Atlantic as well.

Nicholas Kaufmann is public affairs consultant currently based in Brussels.