Can Europe Make It?

The five 'infections' of the social democratic 'family' in the Western Balkans

Social democracy is failing all across Europe; but it's impotence in the Balkans especially is having serious consequences for the region.

Othon Anastasakis
19 April 2017

Nikola Gruveski, Macedonian Prime Minister, with Angela Merkel. Markus Schreiber/DPA/PA Images. All rights reserved.

Looking at the current Western Balkans’ political landscape, in the first half of 2017, one notices that in all of the former Yugoslav states, nationalists dominate the scene and all governments are formed by parties that were involved in the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s on the pro-independence side.

From the Tudjman founded HDZ in Croatia to Serbia’s Progressive Party (born from the Party of Radicals), from Montenegro’s one party rule to Bosnia’s ethnic tri-partite Presidency, and from Kosovo’s former fighters to Gruevski’s authoritarianism in Macedonia, the region oozes nationalism, identity politics, border disputes and rival historical claims.

All of these governing parties are on the right-wing side of the ideological spectrum (except Montenegro), they are socially conservative, openly neo-liberal in their economic policies and not particularly tolerant towards ethnic minorities. The parties of the centre-left, the so-called social democratic parties, are currently in opposition in the Western Balkans and have a limited impact. In an environment of increasing social inequalities, dodgy privatisations, de-industrialisation and the lowest GDP per capita in Europe, the centre left space is left without a voice.

This has not always been the case, as there are a large number of parties in the Western Balkans that call themselves social democratic or socialist, which have played a significant role in the post-communist transformation of these polities, in the context of a variety of cleavages of right versus left, authoritarianism versus democracy, nationalism versus cosmopolitanism and extremism versus moderation.

In this piece, I argue that the social democratic parties in the Western Balkans are in a state of ideological confusion and lacking political strategy. In their declarations, all of them affirm their allegiance to a progressive and moderate political agenda, they present themselves as solid pro-Europeans, conciliatory vis a vis ethnic minorities and socially sensitive.

In reality, however, they practice very little of all that, and most of them have compromised their ideas for the sake of power. They fail to propose any alternatives to the current dominant conservative paradigms and in that sense they are emulating the wider European centre-left story.

Today, social democracy in the Western Balkans is suffering from five “infections”. These are the communist, the neo-liberal, the ethnic, the fragmentation and the external.

1. The communist infection 

What we call social democracy in the Western Balkans today is in historical terms a choice between continuity and rupture with the pre-1989 communist parties. The initial formative years of regime change and transition have left a clear imprint on party politics, in general, and social democratic politics, in particular. Back in the 1990s, the re-labelling social democracy was the passport to the new world of democratic politics, indicating the ideological transformation and decommunistisation of the former totalitarian parties.

As in other East European countries, the electoral success of these parties depended on their rebranding as social democratic. As it happened, following the collapse of the communist rule, the communist parties either reformed early (FYR Macedonia), or reformed later (Croatia, Albania), or turned nationalist (Serbia, Montenegro). Many of the reformed communist parties, played a pivotal role during the years of transition, as important power contenders, in government or opposition, giving birth gradually to new formations, a “second generation” of social democratic parties in the Western Balkans.

The real question, which remains until today, is to what extent they succeeded in ridding themselves from communism, by democratising their internal procedures, embracing new issues, attracting new members, especially from the younger generation. While all these parties adjusted to the new competitive environment of elections, in most cases, they retained much of their prior political culture of top down hierarchical structures, clientelist distribution of administrative jobs and resources, internal fights among personalities and resistance to new ideas.

Many of these parties are still struggling to attract new members, they are slow in introducing internal reforms and display an unconditional obedience to the party leader. Some of them like Djukanovic’s party in Montenegro or Dodik’s party in Republika Srpska are criticised openly for authoritarian practices and anti-social democratic tendencies. But even in the case of Albania where the Socialist Party has been lately trying to modernise and embrace new members, there has been heavy criticism on the adopted party rule that the leader of the party cannot be challenged or removed if he or she loses the election. There is often a feeling in the region that social democratic parties are still guided by “unreformed communists”.

2. The neoliberal infection 

During the long transition years, the regional economics were dominated by the hegemonic discourse of neoliberalism. As all of the economic policies were designed from abroad, with no domestic input whatsoever, the practices of privatisation, de-industrialisation, and labour reforms were never challenged, despite the fact that they were generating all sorts of market deviations, oligopolies, corrupt practices and social inequalities.

For all the Western Balkan states, the post-communist economic model comprised infrastructural, tourist and construction opportunities, leading mostly to economies of services and consumption. Following the FDI boost, the consumption boom and the high rates of growth of the 2000s, the financial and the eurozone crises affected the small, open and vulnerable economies of the Western Balkans by hitting their banking sectors, decreasing investment, exacerbating growth rates, widening social inequalities, increasing unemployment and weakening welfare provisions. The rising numbers of outward migration and brain drain to advanced western Europe, during the last few years, testifies to the gloomy economic conditions and the lack of opportunities in all Western Balkan states.

Where has social democracy stood in this sequencing of transition, boom and bust? From the start, the social democratic parties distanced themselves from the disgraced communist dogmas by adopting ad hoc and less ideological positions and abiding to the new economic principles. Hostages to “the end of ideology” thesis, they refused to explore any regional deviations from the hegemonic liberal and neoliberal consensus while at the same time losing their traditional clientele, the working classes and trade unionism, all of which disappeared in the new space of deindustrialisation.

By espousing wholeheartedly, the European Union perspective, they attached themselves to the rhetoric of structural reforms, fiscal discipline and spending cuts, largely designed by the IMF, and resigned from any claims to social justice, equality, trade unionism and social protection for the sake of the TINA (There Is No Alternative) thesis. Today, some social democrats in the region justify their ideological obedience to neoliberalism by claiming that their countries may need more free market opportunities before they can improve on social policies and implement the true social democratic ideals!

3. The nationalist infection 

Like all other political parties in the Western Balkans, social democratic parties have not been immune to the nationalist claims and ethnic divisions that have tormented the post-Yugoslav space.

While they adopted a pro-European liberal orientation and declared themselves more tolerant towards ethnic and minority rights, many of them were actively or passively responsive to nationalist ideas, if these helped them win elections and remain in power. Djukanovic flirting with Yugoslav nationalism at first, co-cooperating with Serbian nationalism later, before embracing full hearted Montenegrin nationalism, helped sustain himself and his party in power for the last three decades and becoming the longest serving post-communist leader in Central and Eastern Europe.  In fact, his Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS) due to its chameleon-like changes managed to enjoy power uninterruptedly since 1991, making Montenegro’s polity a “dominant party system”. 

Elsewhere, social democratic parties, like Dodik’s Alliance of Independent Social Democrats (SNSD) in Bosnia abandoned their ideals for the sake of independence for Republika Srpska. The ethnicisation of Bosnian politics infected even the Social Democratic Party of Bosnia and Herzegovina (SDP BiH), the only influential multi-ethnic party and the only alternative to the dominant ethnic party system, which constantly faced serious dilemmas, whether to give in to nationalists in power-sharing arrangements or defend its multi-ethnic cause in opposition.

In Kosovo, what was originally a promising and fresh social democratic option, Vetevendosje turned into a purely nationalist movement, currently monopolising the patriotic agenda by disrupting the parliamentary process against any border deals with Montenegro and normalisation with Serbia. Most of the social democratic parties in the Western Balkans, for fear that they will be criticised by the nationalist parties as anti-patriotic, opt for ambiguity on issues of national interest, adopting unclear, non-credible approaches on the sensitive national questions.

This is the case of the social democratic parties in Serbia, most of which are not trusted to handle relations with Kosovo, leaving the space for formerly hard and currently reformed nationalists, such as Aleksandar Vucic and Ivica Dacic, to have their “Nixon in China” moment with Kosovo and claim their nationalist credentials.

4. The infection of fragmentation

It is well known that the biggest fights are usually within the family and that the biggest political enemies are always from within. This is certainly true for the social democratic political family, where political infights are often personal and for the sake of power grabbing and access to state resources.

All social democratic parties in the region have been infected by fragmentation and creation of new political formations, all of which have declared their true allegiance to social democracy and end up fighting each other, instead of the ideological enemies beyond.

This is very visible in Montenegro where even under the dominating shadow of Djukanonic’s Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS), the centre left space includes a number of smaller alternatives, such as currently the Social Democratic Party (SDP), the Social Democrats (SD) and the Democratic Montenegro, among others.

In Serbia, following Tadic’s electoral defeat in 2012, the centre-left space is inundated with social democratic parties all of which have been struggling to surpass the 5% parliamentary threshold; this includes the Democratic Party (DS), the Social Democratic Party of Serbia (SDPS), the Social Democratic Party (SDS), the League of Social Democrats of Vojvodina (LSV), Together for Serbia or the Party of United Pensioners for Serbia all of which are represented in the National Assembly of the 2016 elections totalling 40 MPs all together out of 250.

The fragmentation of the centre left space is further exacerbated by the existence of a number of socialist, green or other one issue parties. This has allowed the present strongman of Serbia, Aleksandar Vucic to use consecutive elections (three in the last three years) to benefit from the opposition’s fragmentation and consolidate his own position.

In the April 2017 presidential elections, Vucic triumphed from the first round with 55% followed by the independent Sasa Jankovic who just got a 17%, raising fears among European democrats that Serbia is gradually turning into another “Orban’s land”.

5. The external infection

Much of what is happening in the Western Balkans is reminiscent of the state of European social democracy, and is a reflection of a wider social democratic malaise in the continent.

To be sure, the ideological problems with European social democracy have their roots in the 1980s and 1990s, which led the British political philosopher Ralf Dahrendorf famously predict the “end of the social democratic century”.  Indeed, the start of the new century signalled the futility of “the third way” in its ideological closeness to market liberalism while, at the same time, some of the socially progressive ideas, traditionally espoused by social democrats were gradually embraced by the parties of the centre right too.

Consequently, the consecutive economic crises gave a big blow to the most influential social democratic parties in Europe including Britain, France, Spain, Italy, Germany, Sweden, the Netherlands and most prominently Greece, not only because they had no alternative to the dominant socio-economic model but also because they were largely seen to be responsible for the severe economic downturn.

One after the other the social democratic parties have been performing badly in national electoral results while the 2014 European Parliament elections confirmed this negative trend across Europe’s social democracy, with its lowest representation since 1979.

Similarly, social democracy is suffering electorally in central and eastern Europe with conservative parties currently prevailing almost everywhere from Bulgaria to Poland and Hungary, the latter shifting clearly towards authoritarianism. No wonder then that the impact of Europe’s social democracy on their Western Balkan counterparts is bound to be weak in terms of political guidance and ideological inspiration.    

It should be added here that the European Party of Socialists (and the Socialist International) to whom most of the Western Balkan social democratic parties are attached, have no commonly agreed yardsticks or examples of best practice for democratic party development that could be transposed to social democratic parties in the region. The best they have been offering is their influence on keeping the accession process of the Western Balkans alive but with not much practical guidance along the way. If there is any leverage this comes mostly from the European Commission, in the context of the accession process and this relates more to inter-party relations, rather than intra-party developments, such as brokering in parliamentary boycotts in Albania, FYR Macedonia, Montenegro or Kosovo.

In fact, by focusing on executive politics and prioritising inter-party relations and consensus politics, the EU and its social democratic parties have underestimated the importance of democratisation and modernisation of the party machines, while the preference for technocrats and capacity building depoliticises the parties and strips them from their ideological dynamism.    


Between the years 2012 to 2016, many Balkan states experienced citizen’s unrests, starting with Bulgaria and Romania and extending to Croatia, Bosnia, FYR Macedonia and Montenegro. Social democratic parties failed to cease the moment and capitalise on such mobilisation because in the eyes of the electorates they were seen as equally responsible for their dismay and discontent. This essay has shown that the reason why social democratic, centre left politics are failing to capture the imagination of the electorates is because they are suffering from multiple infections of internal and external nature.

Social democracy in the Western Balkans like with the rest of Europe lacks the full package - consistent ideology and credible political strategy. It suffers more when compared with the existing political alternatives which are clearer and even, dare one say, more authentic in their ideological proclamations: from the radical left which has embraced a critical anti-globalisation, anti-neoliberal discourse but totally lacks political strategy, to the conservative, centre right political alternatives which are openly embracing nationalism, neo-liberal policies as well as use a statist friendly discourse and dominate political praxis.

On the contrary, the centre left cannot convince that they have genuinely reformed from the communist times, that they can deal with the difficult national questions, that they can address the social and economic inequalities, nor that they can stay united as a credible alternative. One then would expect that Europe’s social democratic family should try to be the guide for genuine reform in the Western Balkan region, but in order to do this, it needs first to find its own orientation.

Get weekly updates on Europe A thoughtful weekly email of economic, political, social and cultural developments from the storm-tossed continent. Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData