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Journal of Democracy 13.3 (2002) 39-53
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Democracy without Choices
The Balkans today stillappear to be an explosive mixture of weak states, nonstates, and present or future protectorates. In reports to policy makers, the region is described as a place where borders (when defined) are soft, identities are hard, reform policies have failed, and the future is cloudy. While we do not know just how many of Southeastern Europe's de facto states are functioning, and to what extent, we do know that today they are all democracies: The parliamentary elections that took place on 17 November 2001 in the former Serbian region of Kosovo mean that each country or entity in the region now has a representative assembly. A decade ago, the region's biggest problem was the prevalence of nondemocratic states. Today the problem is that there are more democracies than sovereign states in the region, and yet there has been less political change than supporters of democracy had expected.
These contradictory trends make toting up democracy's balance sheet in the Balkans a daunting task. On the positive side, the major political actors in the region do not question democracy's status as the only legitimate and desirable form of government. Citizens are sorely disappointed with the status quo, but are not—or at least not yet—drawn to undemocratic alternatives. The military is in its barracks; Slobodan Milosevic is in the dock at The Hague; elections are regularly held. In comparison with, say, the post-Soviet republics of Central Asia, Southeastern Europe shows constant progress in democratization.
On the negative side, there is a justified fear that the Balkan democracies as a group are more fragile than we had suspected. Trust in [End Page 39] democratic institutions is dramatically low. Parliaments rarely receive more than a 20 percent approval rating in opinion polls (in Macedonia, the figure is only 6.9 percent), generalized antiparty sentiment is growing, there is little confidence in politicians, and voter turnout is falling. The recent presidential and parliamentary elections in Bulgaria and Romania revealed high volatility in voter preferences. The intellectual climate has deteriorated, and illiberal and anti-Western ideas are gaining influence. The reformist agenda of the elites is no longer the agenda of the publics.
The latest public opinion poll from Bulgaria, a country that Freedom House rates as a consolidated democracy, shows that according to the public the last 12 years have been a chronicle of wasted time. Half of all respondents claim that the situation has worsened since 1989, with 33 percent claiming that it has not changed, and only 17 percent seeing improvement. Fully 62 percent of Bulgarians say that they would prefer to live in a different age. The figures from Macedonia are even starker. Asked whether they consider that in general their country is moving in the right direction, 62 percent of the citizens of that republic say no and only 12 percent approve of the direction in which they see things moving.
The apparent gap between citizens' perception of the status quo and the view held by the international democracy-promotion community is at the heart of the questions hanging over the future of democracy in Southeastern Europe, and points to the unsettling conclusion that what we are seeing is a crisis of democracy rather than a problem of not-yet-completed democratization.
In democratic politics, perceptions are in a sense all that matter. People's perceptions determine how they vote, how much money they save, whether they want to emigrate or not, and whether they feel more inclined to cooperation than conflict. If we adopt an analytical framework that focuses on citizens' perceptions, the notion of transition is not a useful one. What is a "transition" for the expert is their life for the people. Most residents of Balkan lands believe that they live in democracies, however imperfect. They weigh the advantages of democracy not on the basis of some ideal type that sprang from the brow of the political-science professoriate, but in light of their own experience. It is...