Tusor, Anita & Fernández, Iván Escobar. (2022). “Mapping European Populism: Panel 5 — Populist radical right/left parties and far-right movements in the Balkan countries.” European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). November 28, 2022. https://doi.org/10.55271/rp0007
This report is based on the fifth panel of ECPS’s monthly panel series called “Mapping European Populism” which was held online in Brussels on October 27, 2022. The panel brought together top-notch populism scholars from four Balkan countries, namely Bulgaria, Romania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Kosovo. As a by-product of this fruitful panel the report consists of brief summaries of the speeches delivered by the panelists.
By Anita Tusor & Iván Escobar Fernández
This report is based on the fifth panel of ECPS’s monthly panel series called “Mapping European Populism” which was held online in Brussels on October 27, 2022. ECPS organises a panel series composed of 10 monthly sessions to map European populism, bringing scholars together every month to discuss the state of political populism in a different region of Europe. On October 27, the panel brought together expert populism scholars studying the evolution of political populism in the countries of Bulgaria, Romania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Kosovo. As a by-product of this fruitful panel, this report consists of brief summaries of the speeches delivered by the speakers.
The panel was moderated by Dr Emilia Zankina, Dean of Temple University, Rome, and included the following speakers; Dr Evelina Staikova-Mileva, Associate Professor of political science at the New Bulgarian University; Dr Sorina Soare, Researcher at the University of Florence; Dr Nedžma Džananović Miraščija, Professor and Researcher at the University of Sarajevo’s Faculty of Political Science; Dr Avdi Smajljaj, Associate Professor in the Department of Political Sciences and International Relations at Epoka University in Tirana.
Moderator Dr Emilia Zankina introduced the panel discussion by providing an overall framework in which she stressed the global nature of the populist phenomenon. Dr Zankina went on to highlight the current lack of conceptual clarity in delineating the exact boundaries of whether a political movement meets the criteria to be considered populist or not, which can be observed in the different approaches used in populism studies. In this overall framework, Dr Zankina laid out the three main ways of addressing populism.
The first and most utilized approach she referred to was Cas Mudde’s ideational approach (2004), where he coined the “thin ideology” concept. According to Mudde, populism is not necessarily a dominant ideology in itself but rather an ideology that encompasses different features from the left to the right in the political spectrum. According to Dr Zankina, the second major approach is to tackle populism as a discourse. This involves the analysis of the populist narrative and discourse employed by such parties in order to receive votes, as well as their relation with voters (see Poblete, 2015; Moffitt & Tormey, 2014). The third way is the strategic approach, which considers populism a political strategy adopted to gain power and votes, thus building parties’ political behaviour upon an electoral return that can be achieved through different ways, such as implementing policies or exerting influence on other parties’ policies (see Moffitt & Tormey, 2014).
Although they have some differences, these three approaches share notions of the populist parties’ alleged proximity to the people and the common discourse of “us versus them.” In other words, according to Dr Zankina, these three approaches claim that populist parties share the ideas of the unnecessary role of political parties as intermediaries between the ruling power and the people, as well as a Manichean and anti-establishment narrative.
Moreover, several studies have also focused on the relationship between populism and democracy, leading to the conclusion that despite being authoritarian – following Mudde’s (2007: 15-23) framework – populist parties are not necessarily anti-democratic per se, since they actually benefit from democratic structures and institutions when pursuing and promoting anti-pluralist policies, which ultimately aim at denying rights to minorities and engaging in some sort of welfare chauvinism.
Her introduction concluded with reference to the case of the Balkan countries, where, in addition to the fact that Balkan populist parties somehow resemble Danish or Swedish populist parties, they have also integrated an ethnic component due to the multiethnic nature of most of the Balkan states. This has resulted in a type of ethnic nationalism more directed towards domestic minorities rather than external migrants.
Dr Evelina Staikova-Mileva: “Normalization and radicalisation: the paradoxes of populism in Bulgaria”
“It can be observed that there is a clear tendency towards the normalisation of national populism in Bulgarian political life. This normalisation has occurred due to the cooperation between different populist actors who used to be marginal in Bulgarian politics and has resulted in the transformation of populism into a dominant factor in Bulgaria.”
The first presentation was carried out by Dr Evelina Staikova-Mileva, who aimed to conceptualise the dynamics among the different populist actors in Bulgaria. She began her presentation by distinguishing between Laclau’s (2005) definition of populism and Cas Mudde’s (2007) populist radical right framework. Dr Staikova-Mileva has chosen to use the term populism due to its broader scope, understanding it not as a political object per se but as a supporter of political practices.
In the particular case of Bulgaria, populism emerged at a later stage when the Bulgarian democratic system could already be considered consolidated. According to Dr Staikova-Mileva, the Bulgarian democratic system currently hosts different types of populism. As such, her presentation strove to provide a nuanced categorisation of the different types of populism present in Bulgaria. She points to two main forms of populism in Bulgaria: first, those populist parties that, despite showing anti-elitist stances, support European political projects, and second, the minor national populist political parties, which are an important factor to consider regarding the 2005 emergence of the nationalist political party ‘Attack or Ataka.’
Nonetheless, in addition to the above-mentioned types of populism in Bulgaria, Dr Staikova-Mileva also distinguished between two other forms of populism, bearing in mind what is currently being researched by her academic colleagues. These two other forms of populism are soft populism and hard populism. Soft populism, on the one hand, would involve those actors that generate general appeals to the people through demagogic discourses. On the other hand, hard populism refers to those nationalist and xenophobic parties that have put an emphasis on narratives that boost “othering” in society.
Having categorised the different types of populism, Dr Staikova-Mileva continued her presentation with a brief explanation on the normalisation of populism in Bulgaria. According to her, populist and radical actors have, over the past decades, mobilised through electoral and protest channels, succeeding in the radicalisation of the population. This happens to be an international phenomenon, as we have already witnessed it around Europe, the Americas, and other parts of the world; thus, it is not surprising that Bulgaria has undergone the same political phenomenon.
Nonetheless, by looking closely at the Bulgarian case, it can be observed that there is a clear tendency towards the normalisation of national populism in Bulgarian political life. This normalisation has occurred due to the cooperation between different populist actors who used to be marginal in Bulgarian politics and has resulted in the transformation of populism into a dominant factor in Bulgaria. Besides boosting populism from the margins of society to the core of the Bulgarian political arena, this practice, according to Dr Staikova-Mileva, has also served to legitimise and propel smaller and more extreme populist parties, making them into an essential component in Bulgarian politics. This has been observed through their role as kingmakers in order to ensure the stability of different governments. This has forced mainstream parties to adopt some of their extreme nationalist narratives in order to stay in power.
However, cooperation between populist parties alone does not fully explain this normalisation of populism in Bulgarian politics. This is why Dr Staikova-Mileva also stressed the role of the media in this normalisation process. It is known that the media has played a key role in spreading populist ideas to the population, serving as a platform for populist parties to gain greater visibility and popularity.
The media, and television in particular, is responsible for producing a lot of populist leaders across European countries. As stated above, Bulgaria is not an exception in this case. As a matter of fact, Bulgarian media and journalism, instead of fighting populism, have served as a platform to spread their ideas, misinformation and fake claims across Bulgaria.
Dr Staikova-Mileva concluded her presentation by overviewing the contemporary situation in Bulgaria. The ongoing Bulgarian political crisis has been exacerbated by the economic and health crisis that stemmed from the COVID-19 pandemic and the effects of the war in Ukraine. Populism can no longer be considered marginal in Bulgaria since it is represented not only by political figures but also by policies and practices that have already entered into force, thus shaping and exerting influence on Bulgarian politics, as well as affecting the lives of millions of Bulgarians (see Pirro, 2015: 197-200).
To sum up, Dr Staikova-Mileva stressed that populism has already become both an adopted norm in Bulgarian politics and a suitable ground for the rise of even more radical movements, jeopardising the whole Bulgarian democratic system.
Dr Sorina Soare: “Speaking for the transnational people: the Alliance for the Union of Romanians”
Dr Soare examined the three different layers that conform to the AUR’s definition of the Romanian people. The first layer refers to those Romanians who are within Romania. The second layer addresses the kin communities of Romanians. The third layer refers to the Romanian diaspora. Having seen this, Dr Soare stressed that the innovation that the AUR has brought along is its self-description as a transnational representative of the Romanian people within and beyond the Romanian state.
The second presentation was carried out by Dr Sorina Soare, who tackled a new populist party that emerged in Romania after the 2020 election: the Alliance for the Union of Romanians (AUR), founded in Romania in 2019. The researcher highlighted the fact that, although Romania seemed exempt from populism in their parliament in comparison to other European countries, populist sentiments had already infiltrated the mainstream discourse.
Carrying on with her presentation, Dr Soare pointed out that the turning point in Romanian politics occurred in 2020, when the AUR obtained 9.1 percent of the vote share, becoming the fourth-largest parliamentary party in Romania. It is worth noting that, before 2020, the AUR was a marginal and unknown political party, so their 2020 electoral success was somehow unexpected by both population and experts. According to Dr Soare, the AUR perfectly meets Cas Muddes’ (2004: 543) definition of populism, for whom populism is nothing but a thin-centred ideology that understands society as divided into two antagonistic and homogenous groups and that argues that politics should ultimately be an expression of the general will of the people. In Soare’s words, the AUR can be considered populist due to all the challenges the AUR constantly poses to liberal-constitutional democracy as well as due to its strong emphasis on nativism.
Regarding the party’s name, it should be noted that AUR highlights the union of all Romanians, which is a direct reference to the unification project with the Republic of Moldova. Consequently, their nativist discourse refers to a multi-layered definition of their Romanian people, both within and outside Romania. AUR’s transnational definition of “demos” is one of their most innovative features as it contrasts with the traditional national view of this element.
Looking closely at this multi-layered definition of the Romanian people, Dr Soare examined the three different layers that conform to the AUR’s definition of the Romanian people. The first layer refers to those Romanians who are within Romania and that are, in their view, at risk of not being properly represented by the cosmopolitan elites that have already lost the capacity to address the particular Romanian needs. The second layer addresses the kin communities of Romanians. In particular, these communities refer to co-ethnic communities in neighbouring countries, such as Serbia, Ukraine, Bulgaria, Hungary, and the specific case of Moldova, where the Romanian communities constitute an ethnic majority within the Republic. Lastly, the third layer refers to the Romanian diaspora: those Romanians who have been somehow forced to leave the country due to economic reasons and that are perceived to be discriminated against in Western countries. Having seen this, Dr Soare stressed that the innovation that the AUR has brought along is its self-description as a transnational representative of the Romanian people within and beyond the Romanian state.
Nonetheless, instead of focusing on the reasons behind the AUR’s success, Dr Soare chose to tackle how the party’s redefinition of people impacted the electoral mobilisation of Romanians abroad. Consequently, she suggested that networks of Romanian migrants in Spain and Italy might have amplified the potential of the AUR at the national level. Moreover, the AUR had such an impact due to its institutional origins and its well-established and well-represented image abroad through the presence of around 22 branches of the party across different countries. This was considered to be one of the key factors that explained the electoral mobilization and support the political party achieved in the 2020 elections.
Another key aspect of the AUR is its dual leadership. Thus, far from being a personal party like other populist parties across European countries, the AUR valorised, diversified, and routed a network of associations later brought into the party and diversified its leadership into different branches.
Dr Sorina Soare concluded her presentation by pointing out that there is still some space in the literature to address populism from a transnational perspective, where differences are conceived between the ethnic people, the majority of Romanians within the state, and the co-ethnic Romanian communities in neighbouring countries.
Dr Nedžma Džananović Miraščija: “The trends of the radical right in Bosnia and Herzegovina”
Dr Džananović Miraščija warns that the major danger of far-right parties in Bosnia and Herzegovina is their narrative, which should not be underestimated. Although they are marginalised and do not participate too directly in political life, it does not mean that they do not have a considerable influence on the ethno-nationalist parties that dominate the political stage. Moreover, unfortunately, these mainstream parties have normalized both hate speech and far-right rhetoric.
The third presentation was carried out by Dr Nedžma Džananović Miraščija, who presented the trends of the radical right in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Her lecture sought to provide an analytical framework to review radical right populism not only in Bosnia and Herzegovina but also to compare similar trends in the region and across Europe by addressing some of the repetitive and authentic narratives present among radical groups in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Populism did not skip Bosnia and Herzegovina, in fact, it is omnipresent and has been one of the major features of local political life in the last three decades. Yet, for decades, it was dealt with as nationalism or ethnic nationalism and was not necessarily labelled as populism or ethnic populism. Analyses of populist rhetorics show that it is a kind of populism which heavily leans on nationalistic ideology, yet, in the particular case of Bosnia and Herzegovina, it best fits the model of ethnic populism as defined by Laclau (1977).
The populist phenomenon in Bosnia and Herzegovina is also somewhat specific compared to more general regional trends, considering the recent turbulent history and the political, economic, and social context of its democratic tradition. Its populism strongly corresponds with the theoretical framework and contemporary interpretations of populism not only as ideology, but also as a discourse and strategy. As such, it is present in all these three shapes. The key definition of this specific ethnonationalist form of populism is given by Mujkič (2007: 22):
“some kind of a melting pot for various bits and pieces of political doctrines and principles; socialism, liberal democracy, fascism, romantic nationalism, religious nationalism, but also a melting pot of various cultural pieces; historical narratives, mythologies, literature, religion, tradition, or other events that are considered of vital importance to the identity of one particular ethnic group […] Unlike most other political practices, ethnopolitics is a non-doctrine; it has no goal, vision, or hope other than remaining in power. Neither the well-being of any particular ethnic group nor ‘vital national-ethnic interests’ is the final goal of ethnopolitics. Its raison d’être is crisis, a constant appeal to the existential danger faced by the group. A permanent condition of threat is the only effective way for politicians to remain in power.”
Dr Džananović Miraščija added that fear-mongering is the backbone of political life and the main platform of the three ruling ethno-nationalist blocs. Thus, in a post-conflict country, this is beyond what can be described either as toxic or somehow attached to democratic development. In addition, policymaking exclusively depends on the agreement between the ethnonational political elites and representatives of the three constituent people. This is why it is crucial to understand the ethnic-nationalist nature of populism in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Dr Džananović Miraščija continued with the explanation of the vertical division of populism between the ‘us,’ people, common men, and ‘them,’ the elite. However, in Bosnia and Herzegovina, the political elites have skillfully transformed populism and placed it primarily into horizontal antagonism between the ‘us.’ In other words, they have united the people and their ethnic political elite against the ‘other people,’ referring to ethnically different people. Consequently, the populism of these right-wing parties in the opposition is very often propagandistic and nationalistic, with a strong claim for justice, a change of the regime, a fight against corruption, moral purity, and so on. Moreover, depending on the level of government in which a certain party holds power, it is not unusual to witness a fight between two different populist parties. If this division appears vertical, then it takes place within one ethnic political group.
Moving on to the trend of the radical right, Dr Džananović Miraščija pointed out that the distinction between the white nationalist mainstream and far-right is very thin and blurred among some of their actors. Far-right actors still mainly operate under the authority of the leading ethno-nationalist party with close coordination with the mainstream political right parties since they can provide financial support or even public funds. Those who are not related to the mainstream parties and seek to be authentic are the ones who often do not take part in the elections because they do not have enough funds to run campaigns or even register for campaigning in the first place.
Another point where the far-right and the mainstream meet is the fact that for the last three decades, politicians and policymakers in Bosnia and Herzegovina have rather transparently manifested their nationalism in hate speech and bigotry, targeting the outgroups and reinforcing the victimization narrative of the ingroups. Some of what political and military actors have said in this vein has proven to be a later inspiration for international far-right terrorism.
The far-right extremism we see today in the region extends not just from the 90s and the war and atrocities that took place in that period. It also stems from the late 80s when the former Yugoslavia began a process of democratisation and liberalisation. The wars that followed in the 90s were, in actuality, the catalyst for these far-right ideologies.
Further, Bosnia and Herzegovina faces another paradoxical situation where the official radical right-wing organisations are very small, marginal, and almost invisible. Yet, their radical right ideas feature prominently and have a strong presence in the discourse of the mainstream political parties. In other words, there are no right-wing or far-right parties in the Bosnian Parliament or the regional assemblies. However, the propaganda of the ruling political parties – its rhetoric, hate speech and their entire political agenda – are rooted in the far-right discourse. The ideology is also not only related to the Yugoslavian war but also the Second World War from a revisionist perspective.
Dr Džananović Miraščija concluded her presentation by warning that the major danger of far-right parties is their narrative, which should not be underestimated. Although they are marginalised and do not participate too directly in political life, it does not mean that they do not have a considerable influence on the ethno-nationalist parties that dominate the political stage. Moreover, unfortunately, these mainstream parties have normalized both hate speech and far-right rhetoric. The conservative, patriarchal discourse prevailing in Bosnian society and politics underpins their ideologies and narratives, making the far-right agenda again part of the media and political discourse.
Dr Avdi Smajljaj: “Populists in government in young democracies, normalising the defects of the young establishment: the case of Kosovo”
The main takeaway from the history of Vetëvendosje is that young, not yet established democracies like Kosovo create favourable conditions for the rise of ethno-populism. There has been some level of state capture during the previous administrations, however, the incumbent government is staffing the national institutions with party supporters at a much larger scale. Furthermore, there is no alternative provided by the elected government to the weak institutions, the rule of law and the constitutional structure of Kosovo.
Dr Avdi Smajljaj detailed the case of populism in Kosovo. By way of introduction, he reflected on the day of the 2021 Kosovan presidential election when the Kosovan diaspora flew home to ‘save Kosovo,’ which was part of a dominant discourse at the time.
The elections were won by Vetëvendosje, led by Albin Kurti, whose party presents a clear case of hard populism. Nonetheless, soft populism is also found in many other Kosovan political parties, as many leaders of political parties do not follow democratic traditions. This trend may be explained by Kosovo, as a whole, having limited experience with democratic processes. In all political parties, we can find traces of populist narratives, but none of them can be easily considered an anti-establishment party.
To showcase the rise of populism in Kosovo, Dr Smajljaj chronologically presented how Vetëvendosje came to power. It started as a civic activism movement in 2005, and to this day, the organisation refrains from labelling itself as a political party; rather, it considers itself a popular movement. The substance of their ideology is ethno-nationalism which becomes discernible when one reads the party’s manifesto, a clear reflection of the party’s Albanian nationalism. Among the party’s main objectives is the unification of Kosovo with Albania, which is passively promoted by the party’s leadership. This positions the party against the establishment of Kosovo, as they are against the symbols of Kosovan independence and its statehood aiming to create a Greater Albania.
Continuing with the history of the ruling party and how its populism has changed over time, Dr Smajljaj pointed out that initially, the party of Vetëvendosje did not participate in the elections as they considered them to be fraudulent. This changed, however, in 2010, when they started to participate in political competition with minimal success (12.66 percent). By expanding their cause and program, they eventually gained 13.59 percent of the votes in 2014, 27.49 percent in 2017, and finally 49.95 percent in 2021.
Constructing Vetëvendosje’s anti-establishment narrative was a turning point for their success in the 2021 elections. The party had divided Kosovan society into two sections (1) the old regime, which consists of all previous parties that ruled until 2021; and (2) the new regime, Vetëvendosje. In the face of their rhetoric, an increasing segment of society regarded established political actors as corrupt and engaged in nepotism. As Vetëvendosje expanded its platform to include both ethnonationalism and anti-corruption rhetoric, they saw their support rise.
The party depicted itself as a fighter against state capture by other parties, yet today they are capturing the state themselves. This kind of one-party rule in Kosovo was unexpected as voters and other political parties counted on a multi-party system backed by the proportional electoral system of the country. The defeat of traditional political parties came as a surprise. According to Dr Smajljaj, this shows how populism is a self-destroying machinery: populism rises within a democracy and then destroys it. “Genuine grievances and demands of the disillusioned people end up being represented by populist and anti-democratic forces, eventually becoming hostages of authoritarian institutional dynamics” (Stavrakakis, 2018).
Dr Smajljaj attributed the party’s latest electoral victory to the successful mobilisation of two groups: (1) The mobilisation of the diaspora proved to be impactful, as the diaspora communities significantly contribute to the local economy. Since families still continue to be very strong institutions in Kosovo, family ties mobilized the migrated Kosovans to come home and ‘save the nation.’ (2) Another important group was the youth, who felt themselves more represented by the 47-year-old Kurti than by previous Prime Ministers, which demonstrates how the ruling party has managed to gather more than 50 percent of the votes.
According to Dr Smajljaj, Vetëvendosje presents what Müller’s (2016) book on populism describes; namely, how populism in power reproduces patterns of state capture, clientelism and attacks on civil society. The Kosovan government is replicating all three of these patterns.
The main takeaway from the history of Vetëvendosje is that young, not yet established democracies like Kosovo create favourable conditions for the rise of ethno-populism. There has been some level of state capture during the previous administrations, however, the incumbent government is staffing the national institutions with party supporters at a much larger scale. Furthermore, there is no alternative provided by the elected government to the weak institutions, the rule of law and the constitutional structure of Kosovo. Weak governing performance is justified through comparison to the old regime, emphasizing that the former government’s failures are blocking the new regime from moving forward. This populist message has proved to be efficient in Kosovo.
In his concluding notes, Dr Smajljaj stated that when looking at populism in power in Kosovo, we have to understand that “The leader means the party and the party means the leader”, and he attributes this to the electoral behaviour and Kosovo’s lack of experience with pluralism, a multi-party system and democracy. In a grim conclusion, it can be said that populist promises of good governance and democracy have failed in Kosovo. Although general dissatisfaction with Vetëvendosje is growing, its emphasis on the deficiencies of previous governments proves to substitute the weariness of its voting base.
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