Our social retreat enables trust-based networks while further weakening faltering political institutions in the Balkans and elsewhere.
By David B. Kanin*
Almost since the beginning of the epidemic, statistics and narratives of the COVID-19 experience have sparked a debate over the relative performances of democracies and authoritarian governments. China’s effort to distract from its status as venue of the virus’s origin with a story of successful disease and social management has led to Western criticism of Beijing’s statistics and reportorial opacity. On the other hand, the highly publicized agonies of Western societies are alternatively portrayed as indicating that undisciplined open societies are ill-positioned to manage a crisis of this magnitude or that democracies with private markets will recover while authoritarian systems face increased threats of unrest.
Discussion (and official propaganda on all sides) around this question will continue, but it also will continue to ignore an important aspect of the unfolding catastrophe. The conditions of social distancing and the struggles of all formal institutions of politics and economic decision-making are strengthening traditional networks and transactions of trust at the expense of formal politics. This is true regarding all flavors of political interactions related to all forms of government. No matter the existence of Zoom and other electronic means of contact, the physical facts of lockdowns and scarcity of health-related products and other commodities are putting a premium on the personal contacts necessary to navigate daily challenges to household pandemic management. To the extent individuals and families have access to patronage networks they can use them to jump ahead in virtual and even physical queues.
This is not a temporary situation. One of the major shortcomings in what passes for political “science” is the tendency to treat patronage networks as marginal or criminal appendages to institutions enabled and formally legitimized by legal justification and documentary certification. In all places at all times informal networks and transactional activity provide jobs and trust-based normative frameworks at least as important to patrons, patronal functionaries, and clients as formal political and social structures. Press coverage of the social welfare programs of gangs in Brazilian favelas and Italian mafias should be seen as visible versions of global stories.
In the Balkans, notables continue to follow the traditional pattern – going back centuries – of doubling as formal officials and patronage bosses. It is easy for them to accuse each other of corruption because most of them practice patronal functions that are both illegal and legitimate in the sense that people condemn the activities of rival networks while taking advantage of the informal benefits provided by their own. Since 1990 this liquid condition of politics has created a particular problem as Balkan states have found themselves forced to adopt the surface forms of democracy in order to obtain economic benefits from the Americans and West Europeans.
The financial and political emergency accompanying the pandemic will underscore reliance on informal patronage networks for scarce goods and services. This goes beyond masks and surgical gloves. Over time, what is left of independent media will complain about corruption and organized crime, but the contrast between official noises and the ability of informal networks to deliver what clients require will once again demonstrate that traditional loyalties are worth more than civic mythologies.
As in the West, the expertise and performance of health providers and related professionals stands apart from the inertial rhythms of politics and social interaction. The individuals who earn (near) universal respect for knowledge and self-sacrifice will have real influence on individual and communal behavior. It will be important for these people not to become enmeshed in politics and avoid the embrace of civic activists as well as mainstream politicians.
The election cycles in Serbia and North Macedonia will work themselves out, one way or another, but will not have much impact either on the trajectory of the pandemic or the legitimacy of democratic politics. Boycott or not, no combination of President Vucic’s opponents can defeat him in a fair election. In Skopje, SDSM will have a harder time fending off VMRO-DPMNE, but remains more likely to emerge from a vote (assuming one takes place) with an electoral plurality. In those places and others, political performances will not replace the power of patronage.
Perhaps the only good news in this crisis is that the collapse of complacency and social inertia can produce the conditions for change. An event having the massive impact of a pandemic forces concentrated management and mitigation efforts requiring the adjustment or suspension of pre-existing professional protocols and social practices. A version of Joseph Schumpeter’s concept of “Creative Destruction” becomes possible.
The virus has dampened the pace and urgency of normal Balkan politics and the usual inter-communal nastiness. The hatreds and prejudices affecting the region remain in place, but the partial hiatus in politics leaves open time and opportunity for conversations among the region’s current patronage bosses and their would-be successors. They and chosen others could use the enforced leisure to exchange views on various ”What Ifs.” What if Serbia and Kosova opened a dialogue on the former’s status and the bilateral relationship away from the influence of all the outside Great Powers? What if Bosnians did more than perform the usual Kabuki around what they all know is the unfixable failure of the Dayton arrangement and seriously considered what to do about the first Bosnia to attempt to function outside of a larger imperial or Yugoslav market since the 15th century? How can the region as a whole overcome its diachronic problems of transportation and stunted intra-Balkan commerce?
Of course, there is no guarantee that such discussions would produce more than epidemic-time recreation. In 2001 I had hoped the 9/11 disaster would produce useful changes in the conception and implementation of US national security. Instead, there was just a little administrative noise while the bureaucrats shook off their disorientation and restored their oppressive standard operating procedures.
Still, Balkan-style patronage bosses are nothing if not creative – look at how many flavors of outside-imposed politics and ideology they have successfully adjusted to while retaining their preeminence. The global time-out produced by the virus gives time for productive thought, assuming anyone is interested in making the effort. It would be worthwhile for the patronage bosses to remember that the kind of shock we all are going through can spark unforeseen social dislocation – the worst thing they could do would be to adopt the sort of inertial complacency present in the thinking of those politicians and national security pundits who act as if the post-1989 world was still hegemonic before COVID-19 came on the scene and is going to reemerge after it passes. No one can get vaccinated against the decline of the political forms of a fading era.
*David B. Kanin is an adjunct professor of international relations at Johns Hopkins University and a former senior intelligence analyst for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of TransConflict.