The Dark Side of Democracy (6. Aug 2012)

By Edo Muric

This is an old blog post. Some of the views expressed in it may not be what I think today.

Sociologist Michael Mann's book "The Dark Side of Democracy", on how democratic changes within multi-ethnic societies can easily cause, what he often calls, "murderous ethnic cleansing", is informative and presents a bold idea which was rather attractive to me for a long time until I actually read the entire book. The moment democratic election gives a certain ethnicity a power over an (always binary) ethnic rival, which is a minority, it can cause a spiral of violence which is hard to control and which locks the perpetrators in a series of self-righteous ethnocentric crimes against civilian population.

Generally, Mann is onto something interesting here. He rightfully rejects the usual explanations for events such as genocides and war crimes, which include "people get misled by wrong leadership" or "only a few had bad intentions, the others just followed". Instead, he proposes the idea that the leadership is often locked in a cycle of evil decisions which are part of a political discourse trough which a said leadership has won an election. His best example for this is the rise of Slobodan Milošević in Yugoslavia. He correctly sees the deposed Serbian dictator as a political opportunist who fell into the far right nationalist rhetoric because it was simply a hot asset on Serbian political market, not because he was investing in something he really believed in. In a political system in which there were literally no significant political parties which were not ethno-nationalist he simply became the best player. In other words, in order to stay in power and maintain a sort of an authoritarian control, Milošević had to pander to powerful nationalist political elements within the post-communist Yugoslav political climate. Since ethnic-nationalism was the main political currency in Serbia, Milošević was forced to master it. And indeed, political opposition to Milošević in Serbia was even more extreme than him. The most notorious examples are Vojislav Šešelj, the vulgar demagogue of the Serb Radical Party (SRS), or Vuk Drašković, of the Serb Reneval Party (SPO) who at times seemed more sophisticated and well read, but whose supremacist ideas, often expressed in his fictional writing, as well as his public speeches, were not less extreme than the ones of Šešelj. To his credit, he actually toned down the rhetoric of violence in subsequent years, but the central idea of the Greater Serbia, an ideal which Milošević simply had to embrace if he wanted to stay in power, is still important to his politics. Of course, Mann isn't too simplistic to suggest that Milošević unwillingly jumped on the band wagon of nationalism, or that he was just at the driver's seat and not an architect of the nationalist wave as well. He exposes Milošević as an instigator and financier of the Bosnian genocide as well as all other conflicts in ex-Yugoslavia. But even though he shows that Milošević financed his more extreme political "rivals" and their paramilitary units, his picture of how the entire thing worked is still a bit murky. Mann doesn't dwell much on the role of Montenegro in Milošević's power games. But if he did he would probably be able to present a much clearer picture of how Milošević himself nurtured and inflamed nationalist sentiments which were already present at the moment when he took over the leadership. In fact, Montenegrin leadership is the key to the puzzle. Montenegro was the first Yugoslav republic in which an anti-bureaucratic (anti-communist) revolution, instigated by Milošević power system, took place. It was lead by a group of young ex-communist politicians closely linked and almost entirely loyal to Milošević, to the point that they could be described as branch of his party in Montenegro. Without their loyalty Milošević would probably be unable to gain his fake self-righteous "protector of Yugoslavia" credentials. Those politicians were the leaders of the Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS), Momir Bulatović, Milo Đukanović and Svetozar Marović. The way the DPS trio managed Serb nationalism in Montenegro is a model which worked in the entire Milošević system. Montenegro's secret police actually created some of Montenegro's extremist opposition parties. The most notorious one was the party led by a literature professor, Dr. Novak Kilibarda. His People's Party (Narodna Stranka, NS), was the equivalent of Šešelj's SRS party in Serbia, although SRS was present in Montenegro as well. Kilibarda was an extremist ethno-nationalist of the worst kind. His "professory" image added the much needed academic flavour to Montenegro's Greater Serbia efforts. The reason why we know that his fake opposition party was created by the secret police of Milošević's extended hand of DPS is because he admitted to it later in his career when he made a spectacular U-turn in his ethno-nationalist politics, when he and even DPS (a few years later) were sensing the end of Milošević's power and wisely left the sinking ship. Mann's lack of insight in Montenegrin situation also deprived him of one important element of the entire story. Liberal Union of Montenegro (Liberalni Savez Crne Gore, LSCG) was a genuine Montenegrin nationalist party which insisted on Montenegro's independence from Serbia. But it wasn't just any nationalist party. It was a party which included all ethnic groups of Montenegro and was actually very popular among Montenegro's large oppressed minorities, such as the Bosniaks and Albanians. In fact, the existence of LSCG creates the biggest problem for Mann's theory of "murderous ethnic cleansing" caused by binary rivalry, which in turn is caused by democracy. There it was, a Yugoslav ethno-nationalist party which thrived largely on the support of other ethnic groups. It is largely due to this nationalist party that Montenegro's minorities never developed an appetite for their own nationalist parties, even though they were persecuted by DPS's secret police during Montenegro's aggression on Croatia and even at the time of the Bosnian genocide when DPS offered its assistance to the Bosnian Serb leadership of Radovan Karadžić, organising deportations of Bosniak civilians to Karadžić's death camps in Bosnia, and so on.

The biggest failure of Mann's theory are some of the inconsistencies which come from his inability to apply it to the Holocaust. His main reason for that is that Hitler was a genuine believer in the destruction of Jewish people and that Nazi machinery of death was not a spontaneous reaction to a sudden democratisation and binary ethnic rivalries but something based on a strong ideological convictions. But Mann does not put such condition when it comes to Bosnian Serb political and military leaders. He notes that general Ratko Mladić, for example, probably has a racist hatred of Bosniaks. Biljana Plavšić, a war criminal biologist, believed in Serb genetic superiority, and so on. And when it comes to the Holocaust, Mann makes a mistake not to introduce the binary rivalry as an element as well, even though he does apply it to pre-Holocaust pogroms against European Jews. Holocaust is indeed a unique event in the history of genocides. But its uniqueness is not in the underlying political motivations (the Pogrom Night in 1938 was as much about ethnic rivalry and taking over the expelled minority's possessions as any Yugoslav pogrom). Holocaust is unique because of the way it was executed and for who was democratically chosen to be in charge of it. Its uniqueness is also tightly related to the uniqueness of the entire Nazi project, which saw the entire Europe as its "Lebensraum". In all other aspects it functioned the same way other genocides have been functioning. Therefore, the only reason why Mann can't fit the Holocaust in his theory is probably because he knows it would undermine it.

Secondly, even though we may accept that democracy does produce an atmosphere in which ethnic rivalries may grow, there is still a big jump between rivalries and genocides, which are complex phenomenons with unique dynamic and underlying mechanisms. Mann does not show how they are a natural continuation of binary ethnic rivalries. But despite his central thesis being a bit faulty, Mann does provide many useful insights into the step-by-step stages of specific genocides and puts some light on many lower level perpetrators, which makes his book an invaluable historical analysis.