Meet the Author | Dimitri A. Sotiropoulos

‘Change can happen only if domestic political forces and civic associations become strong enough’

Protest against violence in front of the National Assembly in Belgrade, Serbia, May 8, 2023. IMAGO / Pixsell

In ’The Irregular Pendulum of Democracy’, Dimitri A. Sotiropoulos addresses the development of democracies in Serbia, Montenegro and North Macedonia. In this interview, he explains the difficulties of democratisation in the post-Yugoslav region and the opportunities he sees for a sustainable democracy.

You called your book ‘The Irregular Pendulum of Democracy’. What does this mean in relation to Serbia, North Macedonia and Montenegro?

I used this metaphor in order to look at democracies that are not well established, so-called unconsolidated democracies. Since transitioning from authoritarian rule, such democracies all around the world, not only in South-Eastern Europe, have sometimes encountered impediments on the road to democratisation. They are still in a fluid state as far as the consolidation of democracy is concerned.

On the road to further democratisation, such impediments may sometimes result in regimes sliding back towards a semi-authoritarian type of political regime. At other times, these unconsolidated democracies make further progress on the road to democracy.

That type of movement looks like a pendulum, but it is not a typical pendulum, it's irregular. You cannot really predict in precise terms the pace at which the pendulum will swing back and forth towards and away from democracy. So this is why I call this the irregular pendulum of democracy.

What is the significance of state-society relations in this pendulum movement?

Many authors have justifiably emphasised that in order to understand democratisation, we need to look at background variables, for example, economic development or underdevelopment, political culture, or very often the type of political party system, which means whether you have a political polarisation between the major contenders of power.

I take this as a very important point, but I would like to stress that economic development, political culture and the political party system do not occur in a social vacuum, they occur in a context. This is the context of state-society relations which differs, of course, from country to country. And I have tried to think of populism, clientelism and corruption as three types of state-society relations.

Populism is an ideology, but it is also a way in which the political elites relate to the electorate. Corruption obviously concerns a much smaller segment of society, not society as a whole, but there are still relations between them. On the one hand state officials and on the other hand businessmen who are ready to corrupt and make their way through policy-making in order to obtain favourable decisions for their business interests. Clientelism has to do with the favourable treatment on the part of state authorities of those particular segments of the electorate which have voted or are motivated to vote for the political party that is able to hand out favours to them.

All these background variables, whether a country is economically underdeveloped or whether it does not have a significantly robust democratic culture, may be important in the context of state-society relations. But on a daily basis, political actors who take undemocratic decisions, take such decisions in a social context, which in the countries I studied is a context of populism, clientelism and corruption.

What role does populism play in the political and social discourse of Serbia, Montenegro, and North Macedonia?

Populism is a very well researched concept on which no group of political scientists agrees with another group of political scientists. I usually subscribe to the definition of populism as a thin ideology and an ideology that could be suitable for nationalists, for centrists, even for socialists. And although this is true, I focus on the way political elites, for example a governing party which is populist, relate to its clientele.

Populists claim that they serve the people. In fact, after coming to power, they serve particular social categories, for example, in Southeast European countries, the civil servants or war veterans or pensioners. This observation underlines the fact that I consider populism as a state-society relation between state elites, which are populists, and segments of society, which benefit from populists' social and economic policies the same way I argue about corruption.

You describe that clientelism and corruption are widespread in the area. Why does it seem so difficult to curb clientelism and corruption in the post-Yugoslavian context?

This is related to the fact that successive generations of voters, but also successive groups of power holders, have been politically socialised into playing the game of populism, clientelism or corruption. It is not the same game in every country. In Serbia, you clearly have a populist party in power since 2012, the Serbian Progressive Party. In Montenegro, you don't really have populism, at least until 2020 when a change of government took place. But you have a government led by the Democratic Party of Socialists, which has often been accused of being very clientelistic and corrupt. And in North Macedonia, until the fall of former prime minister Nikola Gruevski from power in 2017, you had a situation in which all these types of state-society relations occurred.

In the context of these three countries, we only found hope for change in case there was a strong party in the opposition that competed with the governing party for power during elections. There was such a party in North Macedonia, the Social Democratic Party (SDSM). But it was not the case in Montenegro and Serbia where the opposition was very fragmented.

Aside from that, you need a strong civil society which will back efforts to stop the further degradation of democracy. There are not many chances to overcome impediments to democratisation, and one of the reasons is that civil society in the countries of South-Eastern Europe is usually weak in terms of mobilisation capacity, and it is also fragmented and internally divided. So you need, on the one hand, a strong opposition party, and on the other hand, support by civil society to be able to start changing these state-society relations.

What chances do you see for a sustainable, well-functioning democracy in the three countries in the future?

The usual answer to this question is that unless the European Union makes further moves to offer these countries a European Union membership perspective, there will be no chance of progress. The EU needs to set benchmarks in a more concrete way so that Serbia, Montenegro and North Macedonia make progress towards European integration. But this argument is one-sided. My view is that change can happen only if domestic political forces and civic associations become strong enough to bring about change. Political change cannot happen only because there is a facilitator outside the frontiers of a country. You need to have the organisation and mobilisation of democratic political parties and civic associations within the country. Foreigners can do only so much, the rest and the hardest part of the job can be done only by the people who are inside the country. There will be no progress towards democratisation and integration of EU candidate member states unless the political elites and also particular societies themselves decide and are able to move along towards a higher quality of democracy and faster integration into the European Union.

The interview was conducted by Joschka Hofmann, student assistant in the Communications department at ZOiS.

Dimitri A. Sotiropoulos is Professor of Political Science at the Department of Political Science and Public Administration of the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens.

Dimitri A. Sotiropoulos: The Irregular Pendulum of Democracy: Populism, Clientelism and Corruption in Post-Yugoslav Successor States. Cham: Springer Nature Switzerland, 2023.