Black box democracies

Two new articles in Eurozine’s series on democracies in the east of Europe focus on countries particularly susceptible to Russian influence: Serbia and Moldova.

In its domestic politics, Serbia tends to be a ‘black box’. There has been plenty of coverage of the latest conflict over Kosovo (cue eye-roll about the ‘number plate controversy’) and we know all too well about Serbian vacillation on Russian sanctions (echoes of non-alignment). But the country is usually discussed primarily in terms of international relations. What is happening inside remains obscure.

Occasionally, critical voices get heard: LGBTQ+ rights are especially media-friendly. Alarming reports by watchdog organizations come and go. But as long as Aleksandar Vučić makes the right noises on the EU stage, and the EU does not revoke Serbia’s candidate status (acquired in 2012), the assumption is that things can’t be that bad. The Serbs are liberal democratic Europeans at heart, right?

Wrong. As journalist Tomislav Markovic explains, Vučić is playing a double game, whipping up anti-western grievances at home, playing the statesman abroad. Serbia has become a hotbed of Russian propaganda, which thrives in a politically subservient, down-market media landscape and is exported across the region. Gender freedoms are quashed; the Orthodox Church does the bidding of regime; genocide continues to be denied; and chauvinist nationalism is intellectually de rigueur.

‘If he could,’ writes Markovic, ‘Vučić would abandon European integration tomorrow and move Serbia even closer to Russia, and even enter an alliance with Russia and Belarus, as Slobodan Milošević attempted to do during the 1999 war. Half the opposition would not oppose him in this, nor the larger part of society that does not regard Serbia as part of the European family.’

End of the experiment?

Moldova is the archetypal European ‘black box’ – or was until it became Putin’s Next Target. Brought by Gazprom to the brink of economic collapse, and assailed by massive cyber-attacks, the country is seen as being at the front line of Russia’s hybrid war against the West.

But while Russian interests in destabilizing Moldova are real, their impact is limited, writes the journalist Vladimir Soloviev. The greater threats to democracy in Moldova are indigenous. The reformer Maia Sandu is widely seen in the West as guarantor of democracy, but her star might be on the wane.

Having won the presidency in 2020 on a unity ticket – a novelty for a rightwing candidate in the highly polarized Moldova – there are signs that Sandu and the governing Party of Action and Solidarity are reverting to divide-and-rule. Despite promising to end institutional corruption, the government is suspected of interfering in the judiciary, getting rid of inconvenient investigators and installing loyalist candidates in key positions.

This is the context in which the recent language controversy is to be seen, argues Soloviev. A law passed by the PAS-controlled parliament in March stipulated that the language spoken in Moldova is now to be referred to as Romanian – and not, as the constitution states, Moldovan. (Linguistically, the language is indeed Romanian.) This kind of symbolic politics looks to increase as next year’s elections approach, Soloviev writes.

Working exclusively for your electorate is not exclusive to the government of Moldova, of course. Nor is the radicalisation of political discourse. The Party of Action and Solidarity’s move to the right is a tactical decision. But such moves are usually made in the absence of other achievements distinguishing parties apart from their opponents that can lead them to election victory.

Also to look out for:

Lidia Zessin-Jurek on the international tensions surrounding last week’s commemoration of the 80th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising.

Ferenc Laczó replies to John Keane: democide is one thing, he writes, but understanding the radicalization of authoritarian systems is the more pressing challenge.

Noor Tazka on the curse of being born a Syrian: a harrowing account of a young woman’s experience of multiple trauma.

Published 26 April 2023
Original in English
First published by Eurozine

© Eurozine

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