Waiting for Putin

apple on a fence

Photo: Ivana Karic

Estragon: ‘Let’s go.’ Vladimir: ‘We can’t.’ Estragon: ‘Why not?’ Vladimir: ‘We’re waiting for Godot.’ Estragon (despairingly): ‘Ah!’

Samuel Beckett, Waiting for Godot

They come to power with Western, USA and EU, support, and try to stay in power with Putin’s support.

Dodik, who runs Republika Srpska in Bosnia and Herzegovina, is one successful, so far, example. Vučić, the President of Serbia, is attempting the same. Putin is due to visit Serbia on the 17th of this month. Everybody, opposition included is waiting for his arrival with great expectations.

Putin’s record, however, is not encouraging. In most cases, Putin’s support, when extended, was not enough for the embattled leaders to stay in power. The most important case in the Balkans is that of Koštunica, the President of Yugoslavia (Serbia and Montenegro) and the Prime Minister of Serbia. He had strong support of the West to topple Milošević, while Putin’s support, which he sought and received, was not enough to keep him in power after Kosovo declared independence in 2008. The most recent example is that of Gruevski, the Prime Minister of Macedonia, who came to power and stayed in charge of the country for a decade or so with the support of the USA and the EU, but lost elections and fled the country (as an asylum seeker in Hungary) despite Russia’s support. A cunning counterexample is that of Đukanović, the President and Prime Minister of Montenegro, both titles several times, who declined Putin’s offer of support. He was a protégé of the USA initially, and a Eurosceptic, but chose the pro-EU policy ahead of Montenegro’s secession from Serbia, and eventually led his country into the membership of NATO against strong objections from Putin. Montenegro is also the frontrunner candidate country for membership in the EU. Stunning given Montenegro’s historical pro-Russian sentiment, and the significant investments by Russians in real estate and tourism.

Vučić is now threading the path that has led others to political defeat. Why is the support of Putin sought and why has it been almost always unhelpful so far? To see this, the Ukrainian example is instructive. Take an authoritarian leader in a presidential system, which is nominally democratic, which is to say holds regular elections. At some point, the odds of a legitimacy crisis erupting will increase if the leader is defying the public will in one way or another. In the Ukrainian case with respect to the EU integration. Then, one option the embattled leader may choose is Putin’s support. If the leader is Putin’s ally to begin with, as in the case of Belarus’ Lukashenko, Putin’s additional or renewed support has a good chance to be enough for the opposition to be crushed e.g. in the streets. If not, then Putin’s chances of success are much lower. In the case of Yanukovych, as in the case of Gruevski, fleeing the country proved the only option left to stay out of prison.

The key lesson then is that an aspiring authoritarian leader that turns away from pro-Western policies and seeks Putin’s support to stay in power when facing legitimacy crisis in the streets – has more often than not diminishing chances of surviving in power.

What is a legitimacy crisis? There is a misunderstanding, which was widely expressed during the Ukrainian crisis, that the rebellion was illegal, the President being duly and legally elected, and thus the ouster of Yanukovych from office was a coup. In fact, the legitimacy crisis erupts if there is a conflict between the will of the people and the will of the government, the legally elected executive or Parliament.

To see this, start with Weber’s distinction between Macht (power) and Herrschaft (legal authority in this case). If, for example, a President defies the will of the people, e.g. by changing policy or political institutions, the power of that will can be expressed in the streets – which is the start of the legitimacy crisis. If the President resorts to repression, then the crisis may very well have to be resolved through the conflict in the streets, as in the case of Ukraine. Then the outcome depends on the balance of power, i.e. how overwhelming is the public disapproval of the President’s policies or politics, including the use of force to suppress the revolt. In the Ukrainian case, the lack of legitimacy of Yanukovych’s actions outweighed the legality of his holding the office of the Presidency. In many other cases, governments survive the test to their legitimacy because they have not lost their power, i.e. the support of the majority not necessarily for their policy but for their claim to run the country, at least until the results of the regular or the early election are in.

Now, what is often contentious, is the international aspect of legitimacy. What does it mean to come to power with Western support or attempt to stay in power with Putin’s support?

Putting aside conspiratorial cases, external legitimacy means to offer to the public an international policy which commands the support of one or the other foreign partner or partners. E.g. as in the case of Poroshenko or the new Macedonian government or Đukanović. Or indeed, to seek external legitimacy through a change in the international policy as in the case of Dodik and now apparently Vučić. The success of course depends not just on the offer but on its desirability and feasibility. If all it accomplishes is the survival of a legitimacy crisis coupled with authoritarianism, that might be neither desirable nor indeed feasible in view of the lost balance of power in the public. Which is why Putin’s support tends to prove to be a losing strategy.

What can be learned from Putin’s successes? In the Balkans, this is just Dodik. He came to power with Western, and in no small part German, support. The expectation was that he will work to transform Bosnia and Herzegovina and integrate it into the EU and NATO. He turned around and has been the main proponent of the secession of Republika Srpska from Bosnia and Herzegovina and has been able to secure Putin’s support for some time now. However, though he tends to win elections, he and his government have been losing legitimacy and are facing a full-blown legitimacy crisis now. He has proved able to squash the protests by force of the police and the law at the same time relying on the support of Serbia and Putin. It is expected that Putin’s support will be reinforced when he visits Serbia on the 17th of January.

How has he managed to successfully repress the public dissatisfaction? By managing to make use of three conditions.

First, democratic legitimacy is not needed to be in power in Bosnia and Herzegovina and in Republika Srpska in particular, rather ethnic legitimacy is required. Which means that Serbia’s support for whoever is the leader of Republika Srpska is decisive.

Second, every Serbian government as well as the parties in the opposition have supported Dodik over the years. The aim being to show to the Serbian public that while Kosovo is lost, Serbian territorial gain in Bosnia and Herzegovina, which is Republika Srpska, is not. Dodik has been arguing for quite some time that the annexation of Republika Srpska should be used as a compensation for the loss of Kosovo.

Third, even if the Serbian government were to contemplate dropping Dodik, that would not go over well with Putin. So, Putin’s support is helpful to Dodik because it keeps the potential loss of legitimacy with the Serbian government in check.

Dodik basically remains in power as long as he keeps Republika Srpska in a state of frozen territorial conflict. With the help of Serbia and Russia. So, internal legitimacy is irrelevant, external legitimacy is what matters.

Vučić’s case is different from Dodik’s. At the moment, Serbia is in the early stages of legitimacy crisis. Initially, the issue of legitimacy was raised by the informal change of the parliamentary into the presidential system when Vučić decided to run for President. Serbian constitution safeguards against presidentialism with the requirement that the President should not hold a position in a party, let alone be a leader of a party. Vučić, however, remains the leader of the ruling party and thus runs the country whatever state office he actually holds. In effect, both the government and the Parliament are the legislative and executive extensions of his rule. That is both illegal and illegitimate.

However, as often happens, it is the arrogance of the power that triggers the legitimacy crisis. In Republika Srpska, it was the unexplained killing of a young person and then the suppression of the protests led by his parents to hold government accountable for the murder. In Serbia, it was the beating of one opposition leader by the members or followers of Vučić’s party. Those were the scandalous manifestations of the increasingly repressive and manipulative rule by authoritarian leaders. In response, there is a growing number of people demonstrating against Vučić’s regime in the capital and in the towns across the country each Saturday. Demonstrations are planned also for the 16th of January, on the eve of Putin’s visit.

So far, the Serbian government has refrained from repressive measures against the demonstrators. Unlike Republika Srpska, it is sensitive about its legitimacy. It is in addition hoping that Putin’s support will be enough to marginalise the dissatisfied population. Putin, for his part, is taking the extraordinary step of personally supporting Vučić and his government by visiting the country. Something he has not done before in the Balkans in any case. He and Vučić clearly hope that he can lend his legitimacy to the embattled Serbian leader.

Will he be successful? That depends on the international balance of power. Which is to say on the position taken by the EU and the USA. And their stance depends on their expectations of Vučić’s intentions when it comes to the solution of the Kosovo problem.

Ostensibly, Vučić wants to come through with the promise that got him the EU support when he was coming to power in 2012 – an agreement on the normalisation of relations with Kosovo which has been understood, by Merkel in particular, as the legally binding treaty which removes the obstacle for Kosovo’s membership in international organisations, in the UN most importantly. Currently, Vučić’s goal is to wiggle out of that commitment, risking his international legitimacy. He is banking on three conditions.

One is the opposition’s growing anti-EU stance. They, the opposition, believe that Vučić is kept in power by the EU and more specifically by Germany. So, they are very much behind the curve as is in all appearances the EU itself, i.e. Ms. Mogherini and Mr. Hahn.

The other is the renewed involvement by the USA with their support of the plan for the swap of territories by Serbia and Kosovo. This is an unimplementable plan, which however dispenses with the previous commitment to normalisation.

The third, and more important, is the change of the anchor of international legitimacy from the EU to Russia. Which is where Putin’s upcoming visit comes in. The visit that should, in addition to shoring up Vučić, also strengthen Dodik’s grip over Republika Srpska.

That is the plan. Will it work? In the short run, yes. As intended, the time for the implementation of the commitment to Merkel and Mogherini will run out because of the upcoming EU elections. The proposed territorial accommodation will be frustrated by its unpracticality. And, in all probability, Vučić will come ahead in the upcoming early or regular elections, of which the latter are due next year. In addition, Dodik will be successful in the repression of the public outcry in Republika Srpska. Putin will succeed in strengthening authoritarian leaders facing legitimacy crises in the Balkans. And the EU will have to come up with an alternative plan or give up. It remains to be seen what the reaction by the USA will be.

Beyond the short run, Putin risks another disappointment. He may prove successful in the short run because of the EU’s lack of commitment to the Balkans and because of the uncertainty about the US intentions with NATO. Once EU consolidates, if that happens, and more importantly the US commitment to NATO is reinforced, the effects of the permanent lack of internal legitimacy of both Vučić and Dodik will doom them both.

In addition, and rather importantly, there is growing Chinese influence in Serbia in particular. So, eventually, the important international discussion will be between the US, the EU, and China, with declining influence of Russia. But for now, Serbia is eagerly awaiting Putin.

Peščanik.net, 16.01.2019.