Building Enduring Democracies: Filip Milačić on the Effects of Nation and State Building on Democratic Consolidation

In this conversation with RevDem assistant editor Lorena Drakula, Filip Milačić – author of the book Stateness and Democratic Consolidation. Lessons from Former Yugoslavia – discusses the effects unresolved issues of stateness can have on the trajectories of democratic consolidation; how political actors can instrumentalize polarization in society to justify authoritarian measures; and what can be learned for democracy promotion projects today.

Filip Milačić is a research affiliate at the Democracy Institute and a senior researcher for Democracy and Society at the Friedrich Ebert Foundation’s office “Democracy of the Future”. His current work focuses on the question why people vote for politicians who subvert democracy.

Lorena Drakula: In your book, you present quite a complex causal mechanism to explain the preconditions and the facilitators of the democratization process, focusing both on institutional conditions and the agency of actors in creating and sustaining democratic regimes. You develop a new theoretical framework to understand the relationship between stateness and democracy and what comes first. So, I would like to start this conversation by briefly discussing your understanding of the state before democracy versus democracy before state debate, and what might be gained by understanding the nuances of their relationship?

Filip Milačić: Well, this has been a debate that has been shaping political science for a while, and there are two perspectives. The first one is called “No State, No Democracy” and I think it was pretty much a dominant perspective, going back to the classic work of Linz and Stepan, and before that Rustow. Basically, they were saying that democratization can only happen if the matters of state and nation have been previously resolved, meaning the borders of the territory, and that we know who “the people” are. This perspective was then additionally developed by other authors, mostly by Mansfield and Snyder, who also said that if we start the democratization process with these issues still shaping political competition, then it’s very likely that elections will lead to violence, and that these are not good preconditions for starting the democratic transition. There are some others who add an administrative perspective of the state, basically saying that if you start a democratization process without strong institutions, it could lead to a weak state and politicization of the institutions, clientelist practices and so on. This perspective was dominant for a while.

But then, lately, another perspective emerged, saying that all these disputes can be resolved within the democratization process. They are saying that if you have disputes about the nation and territory, only in a democracy can you create sustainable solutions. Some authors like Acemoglu and Robinson qualify democracy as a conflict management tool, saying that if you have elections, they do not necessarily lead to violence, but offer tools and power sharing arrangements so that you can resolve these issues without violence. Some of them, like Carbone, also say that elections will lead to a situation where politicians will think about public goods and this will strengthen institutions, so it doesn’t mean that institutions will be politicized or that they will be weak or that clientelist perspectives will develop. Some authors, like Teorell, were saying that even if you have strong institutions, they can actually cement authoritarian rule. So basically, they can be an obstacle to democratization.

These two perspectives compete against each other. I think the first one is very pessimistic – – basically saying “No State, No Democracy”. And the other one, “No Democracy, No State” is rather optimistic. So, this is why my goal was to offer a more nuanced argument, to kind of follow the middle ground, because I say that unresolved stateness does not prevent the emergence of a democracy, or at least of an electoral or defective democracy – this is where I disagree with the first perspective. But then I think unresolved stateness problem slows down the consolidation of that electoral or defective democracy, and can also initiate democratic backsliding, which are concerns that are, I would say, not taken into account by the second perspective – No Democracy, No State. So, what is my argument?

If you have these open territory or national identity issues, electoral democracy can emerge, but the consolidation process will be a slow one and even if a democracy develops and achieves a certain level of development, there is always a danger of democratic backsliding.

To explain it like this: you can have a healthy body, but with cancer cells inside and these cancer cells can always be activated. By that I mean these issues can always be activated by politicians, misused, and they will justify authoritarian regression with them. This part has been rather neglected in the literature because it is mainly focused on democratization, and not on democratic backsliding when these issues have not been resolved. So, I would say, beside this nuanced argument, my contribution to this debate is also the focus on how stateness affects democratic backsliding and not only democratic transition.

How do you conceptualize this stateness – in the book you mention state building and nation building as its two key elements. Could you elaborate a bit more about them and explain how you think their relationship affects democratization and democratic consolidation?

Yes, I orient myself on Stan Rokkan’s classification and his differentiation between nation building and state building. Each of them has two criteria, in my opinion. For a country to complete state building, it needs to fulfill the two following criteria. First one is the classic border territory – basically, you have a territory that is recognized by others. This is the classic theory of the state that goes back a hundred years. The second one is also based on the classic work of Weber and says that the state has to enjoy the monopoly on the legitimate use of physical force within its territory.

Nation building is, I would say, slightly more complicated because the criteria are not as clear as regarding state building, when you have borders, territory, and monopoly on the use of force. But nevertheless, it also has two criteria. First one is that there are no profound differences as to who has the right of citizenship among key political actors, and they need to decide which approach is predominant regarding nation building – civic approach or ethnic approach. I don’t think that you can have only one pure approach, because you will always have aspects of one approach in the other one, but I look at which approach is predominant. I think for democracy this makes a huge difference, because the civic one is much more inclusive, it is based on elective attributes, regardless of religion or race or ethnicity, while the ethnic one is not based on elective attributes, but on something that is supposed to be inherited and so it is more exclusive. So, I think this makes a huge difference for democracy.

I mentioned that there is a second criteria, and this is the defined “people” must both participate in the formation of the general will and be subjected to it. It’s not enough that you vote in elections, but that decisions of the central government should also affect you. Because as we know, there are a lot of disputed territories, and one country gives citizenship to a population, but then they are not affected by decisions of that country. So, this is why I included this sub-criterion, in particular having in mind the Kosovo issue and the Kosovo Serbs.

I think these four criteria are more than enough, and if one of these criteria is not fulfilled, I see the stateness problem as unresolved. However, when I link the stateness problem and democracy, I do not see direct causality there or any kind of direct correlation.

An unresolved stateness problem creates conditions that are not favorable for democratization or a transition to consolidated democracy and can also initiate democratic backsliding.

And what do I mean by unfavorable conditions? Firstly, I think that an unresolved stateness problem can generate ethno-nationalism. And in this way, it creates a fertile ground for “political entrepreneurship” based on ethno-nationalist appeals. Basically, these unresolved issues can be instrumentalized and misused by political actors who present themselves as champions of national interests. In this way, they justify authoritarian measures and portray the national interest as being under threat. This also legitimizes their authoritarian actions, makes people more receptive to these kinds of actions, and, in other words, minimizes resistance to power grabs. I think this mechanism – how the allegedly endangered national identity facilitates authoritarian measures – we have seen not only in the territory of former Yugoslavia.

But also, I think that there is another condition created by unresolved stateness issues that facilitates this undemocratic behavior. And here I agree completely with Jennifer McCoy and Murat Somer who warned about so-called formative rifts, about disputes that are related to ethnicity and the question of national identities. These issues tend to be very polarizing, and they tend to generate a toxic polarization. If you have a system marred by toxic polarization, all the attempts to subvert democracy that I have previously described are much more easily done because of two things. On the political actors’ level, if you don’t see your opponent as an opponent but as an enemy, then your willingness and your readiness to adhere to democratic rules decreases and you are more willing to use illiberal measures in a political competition. And on the voter level, this is tolerated because when the voters see the other camp as enemy of the nation, then their willingness to tolerate undemocratic practices also increases. So, this is how I see these unfavorable conditions, but as I said, I don’t see any direct causality there.

Whether or not these conditions will turn into a lack of democratic consolidation or stagnation or even democratic backsliding, it greatly depends on political actors – whether they will act as tools of division and misuse these issues or not.

Could I ask you to briefly contrast the effects of this unresolved nation building issues in some of the more successful and less successful countries that you compared? What would be the main patterns that the cases share in terms of how these nation building issues create polarization and influence the opportunities and constraints for non-democratic actors?

Well, we have these countries, two of them that are more successful – they resolved the stateness problem; and four of them that are less successful – they still haven’t resolved the stateness problem. I will start with Slovenia. Slovenia entered the democratic transition with a resolved stateness problem, with completed nation building and state building, and we see that Slovenia was a success story. It basically democratized immediately and the whole transition unfolded smoothly and in a linear manner. Later, of course we saw that there were some issues with Janša and attacks on democratic institutions, especially on freedom of opinion and independent judiciary, but there were no restrictions on either freedom of opinion or judiciary’s power in practice. There were verbal attacks by Janša and SNS, but this deterioration of democracy was not as intense as in other countries. This is explained by the potential for political entrepreneurship, which was not big in Slovenia, because you did not have stateness-related issues that were ongoing and you could not instrumentalize them, you could not manipulate them. So, this is one of the key reasons, in my opinion, why the attacks on Slovenian democracy were not as strong or successful as in the other countries.

Then you have, in my opinion, the second most successful country, Croatia. For my argument, Croatia is the most interesting case because we see Croatia started this process, the democratic transition, with an unresolved stateness problems. We can see how this negatively affected the whole process in the nineties. We can see how President Tuđman and his HDZ misused these issues to cement authoritarian rule, and to justify undemocratic rule by manipulating elections, by basically accumulating power in his hands, by also depicting the opposition as disloyal to the state, and by nurturing resentments against the opposition, demonizing opposition, delegitimatizing it, and by how this prompted the creation of uncivil society. So basically, we see all these mechanisms at play until Croatia resolved this issue in 1998, and then we see how this positively affected the trajectory. Croatia then rapidly democratized and their democracy was consolidated. But we also see how these identity related issues are still affecting Croatian democracy and are still influencing the quality of Croatian democracy. There was a founding narrative that developed during the nineties, and we can see how this was misused for illiberal practices in Croatia. Nevertheless, it’s not the same thing if you have a founding narrative or if you have open issues. Hence, this entrepreneurship potential in Croatia was significantly decreased, and this is why I think that even though we can say that the quality of democracy decreased, Croatia remains a consolidated democracy – political entrepreneurship based on the founding narrative was not as strong as when you had these open stateness-related issues. So, I was able to see, for example, how Slovenia and Croatia very much profited from resolving this issue.

Then we have the other four countries. I didn’t include Kosovo because of methodological reasons, it was part of Serbia, and I couldn’t do the analysis properly from the methodological perspective. Therefore I only focused on the other four former-Yugoslav republics. In the nineties, we could see the same mechanisms in play as is in the Croatian case. These countries, contrary to Croatia, did not resolve the stateness issue, and some other factors affected them. We saw the catastrophic consequences of the conflicts in the nineties that delegitimized the misuse of stateness issue; then we saw that all these new elites or the nominally new elites were pro-European, so they refrained from misusing the stateness problem, and this affected positively the democratic trajectory. I’m not saying that the stateness problem just disappeared because there were debates, of course, about these issues, and they slowed down the consolidation of democracy, but nevertheless, by refraining to misuse the stateness problem, these countries progressed.

And then we have, what I call the phase of democratic backsliding, where we see how political actors started misusing these issues again, and then how this affected democratic trajectories. We can see how political actors combined national identity politics and clientelism, then we have the same mechanism about demonizing and delegitimizing opposition, calling them traitors, also we see this ethnification/re-ethnification of the party system, we see the strengthening of uncivil society – the same pattern as in the nineties but from a different perspective. It was not within the democratization phase, but when they actually achieved a considerable level of democratic development.

The same issue that basically prevented their democratization in the nineties is now causing democratic backsliding.

Also, probably the most important deficiency is the accumulation of power in the incumbent’s hands because we see how people like Gruevski, or Vučić, or Dodik, portray themselves as the champions of national interests based on unresolved issues – for example, the Kosovo issue in Serbia or during Gruevski’s reign the disputes between Greece and North Macedonia. They misused these issues for the accumulation of power and presented themselves as champions of national interests, and this contributed to democratic backsliding. So, in sum, we can see how this potential for political entrepreneurship was much bigger in Serbia, in Montenegro, in North Macedonia, in Bosnia-Herzegovina, than in Croatia and Slovenia, and I think this is because of the existence or nonexistence of the stateness problem.

An interesting shift from the prevalent transition literature comes from your comparative study on the Yugoslav successor countries – their violent transition has often pushed them into the category of purported anomalies. So, a general question to pose here would be – should we draw lessons from former Yugoslavia and what can we hope to learn on a more general level from these cases?  

If you look at the analyses of the democratic transition in Eastern Europe, you will see that ex-Yugoslav cases were treated as an anomaly, and they were kind of “explained away”. There are not many analyses on South-Eastern Europe or territory of the former Yugoslavia because of this uncompleted nation-state building, accompanied by the war. This made the analysis much more difficult. But I think that this is the value of these cases because we see that these conditions are provided in some other East European cases – like in Armenia, Georgia, Ukraine and Moldova. I think these countries can learn a lot from former-Yugoslav cases because of the similar conditions: like I said, unresolved stateness problem – or at least in some cases nation building, in some cases state building – accompanied by war.

Having this in mind, I identified two key lessons. One would be, as we discussed, a resolved stateness issue makes the transition much easier – this condition facilitates the transition to a consolidated democracy. We see this clearly from the six former-Yugoslav cases – how those who resolved this issue progressed, and those who hadn’t were kind of stuck, or they stagnated, or slowly progressed and even regressed, and the mechanisms that I explained were responsible for it.

But there is also a second lesson, one that I would say, is even more nuanced, and the Croatian case is, in my opinion, the basis for it. We can see that the resolution of the stateness problem is very important, but it’s also relevant in which way it is resolved. This is where I differ from some other authors who are saying that if you base your nation building on ethno-nationalistic policies, then this is bad for democracy. Yes and no. You can see in Croatia that democracy developed and even consolidated, but then, because of this emphasis on ethno-nationalistic policies, there are deficiencies that have been corroding Croatian democracy ever since and they kind of invoked that path dependency. What happened in the nineties is still affecting Croatian democracy right now. What do I mean by that? This emphasis on ethno-nationalistic policies created strong polarization in Croatia between so-called ‘good’ and ‘bad’ Croats, it alienated some minorities, and created powerful veto players, especially veteran organizations, who during the consolidation process were a big obstacle to this process, and even now affect the quality of Croatian democracy with their actions.

What I also think is very important in the Croatian case is the founding narrative that dominates the Croatian right, basically saying that Croatia was only a victim and not an aggressor as well.  The narrative provides the ground for attacks and for implementing illiberal policies against all those who question the narrative, like the left opposition and NGOs. So, I think we see here how this modus operandi negatively affected and is still affecting Croatian democracy.

It is great if you resolve the stateness problem, but it’s even better if you resolve it in an inclusive way, because it affects the future democratic prospects – your democracy will be more easily consolidated, and it will be much more sustainable.

This is why I see this lesson as more nuanced and this is, I think, very important because we see that even consolidated democracies can regress and backslide. But nevertheless, I think the Croatian case shows that it’s much better that you resolve the stateness issue in a negative way, than to not resolve it at all.

Since your theory does allow for generalizations to the Eastern European context, I would like to address the role the European Union might have, or the consequences that a stronger influence of the European Union might have in Eastern Europe, especially regarding the current situation in Ukraine. How do you understand the influence or the function of the European Union as an agent of embedded democratization?

The criteria for joining the EU are pretty much clear. However, there is one criterion that has been rather neglected in the literature because it hasn’t been codified as the other criteria, and I think it directly relates to the stateness problem. We see that for the four countries of former Yugoslavia that are less successful, their criteria for joining the EU manifested in other issues that concern the stateness problem. We have numerous examples for it. For example, in the beginning of this process we saw that the reform of Serbo-Montenegrin national state was a precondition for a Stabilization and Association Agreement, and we saw how this delayed the Europeanization process for few years. So, I think that the whole EU accession process directly relates to stateness issue. In the Serbian case we also see the Kosovo issue, how this has been one of the key obstacles on the Serbian European path.

But we also see these kinds of criteria for EU membership affecting other countries. For example, in North Macedonia, in the beginning of the process there was the Ohrid Framework Agreement which ended the conflict between ethnic Macedonians and Albanians, and its implementation was one of the criteria for EU accession. But also, later we saw the bilateral disputes that are not related to the state building, but to the nation building in North Macedonia – the disputes between Greece and North Macedonia, and disputes now between Bulgaria and North Macedonia.

I see these kinds of issues that are related to the criteria for EU membership in Bosnia as well. For example, the EU has been saying that Bosnia needs to strengthen its central institutions in order to qualify for the candidate status, and we saw how the elites in the Republika Srpska have been blocking this strengthening of institutions because it’s not in their interest. Secondly, the example of the Sejdić-Finci case, because the verdict of the European Court of Human Rights touches directly the ethnic principle of the state, and this is directly related to nation building. We see how these criteria posed an obstacle to the EU accession process. Why? Because the nation state building goals of the elites were at odds with EU requirements. The elites weren’t fulfilling EU requirements regarding these criteria because these criteria led to higher adoption costs of the EU rules, and the elites prioritized their stateness-related interests over the EU accession process, which turned out to be an obstacle to their countries’ EU accession process. How could this be of use for cases like Ukraine?

This stateness issue, even not recognized as such, is a criterion for EU membership.

A country without defined borders cannot join the EU, and we can see that in some way nation building is an indirect criterion for EU membership. Especially, we see, for example, that in North Macedonia the implementation of the Ohrid Framework Agreement regarding the rights of Albanians was a precondition for the EU accession process. We also see this ethnic principle of state in Bosnia as an obstacle. A similar criterion might also apply to Ukraine, regarding the rights of minorities. But what I am mostly concerned is that when the war ends, it could well turn out, though no one can know, that there will be some territorial disputes. I think these territorial disputes, if they exist, could be an obstacle for the EU membership of Ukraine, having in mind what I just said and having in mind these lessons and also the experiences of former-Yugoslav cases. I must repeat it is not easy to analyze this, there are no strict criteria but they are, I would say, ad hoc criteria. But we can see that these issues, which are directly related to stateness, were in former-Yugoslav cases quite important criteria for EU membership, and in my opinion, they also caused, on several occasions, important delays in this process.

Your book also contributes to understandings of democratic resilience – how regimes react to challenges in a democratic manner. What do you see as the chief lessons that might be drawn for democracy promotion projects today?

Well, I think the key lesson would be that the resolved stateness problem makes consolidated, and enduring democracies more likely. I emphasize on purpose this enduring democracy because we have examples of Poland and Hungary where we can see that even consolidated democracies can backslide. So, what makes democracies endure? I think I mentioned this in the beginning of this interview, that maybe at some point democracy can even consolidate with unresolved territorial or national identity related issues, but you always have these cancerous cells in your body. There can always emerge a political entrepreneur who can say that national interests are in danger, who can elevate the salience of national identity by talking about threats, not only to mobilize the voters, but also to implement authoritarian measures. So, I think for democracy to endure, you need to resolve these issues.

But what I think is also important for democratic resilience is why are so many voters receptive to this kind of discourse about endangered national identity and endangered national interests, and why are they ready to tolerate undemocratic behavior of elected leaders who champion such a discourse? Because we see that this kind of mechanism was responsible for democratic backsliding in many countries. I don’t think that political science can offer an answer to this question. I think we need to include other disciplines like social psychology or sociology, or even neuroscience, to see why are many voters receptive to this kind of discourse of political entrepreneurs?

For democratic resilience we need to have two things in mind. First one is that if we are to analyze the democratic transitions, we usually have four potential outcomes in mind: a consolidated democracy, a non-consolidated democracy, a hybrid regime and an authoritarian regime. And I think the literature has maybe focused too much on hybrid regimes and that we neglected these low-quality democracies or non-consolidated democracies. I think we should investigate them much more to see why they are stuck there. We focus too much on hybrid regimes, but we don’t focus as much on low-quality democracies or defective, non-consolidated democracies. 

We have a lot of democracies that struggle with illiberal practices and institutional dysfunction, but they don’t move – they don’t move to the authoritarian camp, but they don’t move to consolidated democracies camp either. I think that we need to see what is wrong there…

Also, I think that for democratic resilience it is very important to recognize the fact that we cannot talk about linear processes where every democracy that starts the transition will end up being a consolidated democracy, and we cannot talk about the democracy that has been backsliding and ending up as an authoritarian regime. If you look at the transition processes of many countries, you see these back-and-forth cycles – basically that democracy can advance, then it can struggle, and it can regress and so on. I don’t think that we fully explain why this is the case – why some democracies are at some point progressing, and at some point, struggling or even regressing, and, this de-democratization and re-democratization, why does this happen? This is why I think that the name of the Democracy Institute couldn’t be better, because it’s also called De-democratization/Re-democratization. I really think that this is something that we should investigate much more: why some democracies de-democratize and then what are the conditions that favor re-democratization? Such erratic processes, such back-and-forth cycles, I think we need to investigate them much more, and that we need to abandon this assumption that we are dealing with a linear process.

The transcript has been edited for length and clarity

In collaboration with Karen Culver and Lucie Hunter

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