Desoroizacija and Politics after (Il)liberalism

From the Series: Lessons for Liberalism from the “Illiberal East”

Photo by Ines Zgonc, licensed under CC BY.

On January 28, 2017, a small group of Macedonians staged a protest at Trump Tower. A dozen of homemade banners appealed to President Donald Trump: “Macedonia needs your help. Please stop Soros.” The demonstration followed a broader call for desoroizacija, also known as “Operation Stop Soros,” an initiative launched by the then-ruling party of former Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski to curb what it saw as pernicious external influences into Macedonian politics. Similar calls have resonated throughout Eastern Europe, notably in Hungary, where the Orbán government has engaged in active attempts to close the George Soros–backed Central European University. Ironically, while the right increasingly critiques Soros for being a liberal influence, the left accuses him of not being nearly liberal enough.

Why is Soros increasingly controversial on the Eastern European right? This post suggests that desoroizacija has gained traction as the economic and political components of post–World War Two liberalism collide in the aftermath of the global financial crisis. Desoroizacija embodies the recognition that, at the periphery of Europe, it is authoritarianism, more than the free market, that delivers jobs and social belonging—albeit accompanied by political oppression. As Macedonia breaks free from the Gruevski regime, desoroizacija adds to the political repertoire, allowing a coalition of progressive actors that opposed the regime to think beyond free-market mechanisms and to rediscover leftist policies.

Soros, a Jewish-Hungarian-born, eloquent, and cultivated New York financier, is known as a strong proponent of democratization in former socialist societies. In his vision, the nations of Eastern Europe should have turned into open, liberal societies, where transparency, multiculturalism, and competition would have ensured social well-being and political representation for hard-working, entrepreneurial subjects. In practice, the forced adoption of free-market principles and private property allowed Eastern European oligarchs, managers, and bandits to prey on, and ultimately, bankrupt existing companies and factories. Foreign investments materialized only in a limited number of countries, offering unsustainable work conditions and salaries—hardly the means for social progress envisioned for liberal open societies.

Other ghostly presences lurk behind murky privatization schemes in Eastern Europe. Recent inquiries by the U.S. Department of Justice and interviews with former intelligence officers claim that international investors colluded with Macedonian politicians, ultimately enabling Gruevski’s authoritarian regime. Rumors about the economic networks that supported Gruevski’s rise to power point to shady business ties woven by his cousin and former head of the Agency for Security and Counterintelligence, Saso Mijalkov, under the benevolent watch of former Yugoslav secret services.

More recently, Mijalkov has been linked to complex networks of shell companies that funneled money in and out of the country through Belize and Panama. With this money, the regime organized protection rackets, fixed tenders, forcibly acquired companies, wiretapped citizens, and beat or arrested entrepreneurs who did not fall into line. After barely losing the 2016 elections, Gruevski’s party organized a violent occupation of the Macedonian parliament— a desperate attempt to stop the new majority, create civil unrest, and impose martial law. The mob of masked citizens and undercover police operatives that almost lynched MPs from the new majority was joined by an agent of the Serbian secret police—reinforcing suspicions of regional cooperation between Macedonian, Serbian, and Russian autocracies.

The actions of untouchable oligarchs, mysterious spies, and faraway global financial elites are amplified in a small country like Macedonia, with only two million inhabitants. In the aftermath of the global financial crisis, Macedonians feel that their lives are shaped by hidden forces. As the country and its citizens become increasingly indebted, the Macedonian working classes have come to resent liberal mechanisms of representation as a facade that barely conceals their own insignificance. Desoroizacija, with its personalized vitriol, represents an attempt to fight back by making these hidden forces concrete and lending authoritarian leaders the power to restore to labor its innate social dignity.

Why would workers embrace political liberalism and defend liberal elites, whose open, free society did not bring about jobs, political belonging, or even social progress?

Gruevski, the anti-Soros, never promised democracy, nor a free market. His authoritarian society was based on hierarchical relations of dependency, lubricated by nationalism, masculinity, and sheer fear. Being a part of Gruevski’s political economy meant getting investments, contracts, or jobs in exchange for political domination. Workers were often under- or unpaid—but, in Gruevski, they had a direct interlocutor to whom they could plead for help and with whom they could identify. When everything else failed, workers knew they could exploit colleagues with political connections. Inside the rabbit hole of the regime, desoroizacija thus made sense. Why would workers embrace political liberalism and defend liberal elites, whose open, free society did not bring about jobs, political belonging, or even social progress? From their vantage point, Soros was not much different from Gruevski, except that domestic authoritarianism did offer economic benefits. Similar dynamics can be observed among other working-class communities in the United States and Europe, where the freedom of political liberalism is increasingly irrelevant if disconnected from economic well-being.

Paradoxically, desoroizacija allows Macedonian progressives who opposed Gruevski more political room to experiment. By cultivating dissatisfaction with political liberalism and free-market mechanisms, desoroizacija allows progressives to reaffirm their leftist roots. Instead of defending multiculturalism, transparency, and civil society, Macedonian progressives are experimenting with platforms based on equality, solidarity, and the commons, connected to the struggles of groups in Zagreb, Belgrade, Sarajevo, and Pristina. Macedonian groups like Levica, Plostad Sloboda, or Solidarnost grew over time from small clusters of activists dedicated to critique through performance and became the pulsing heart of the colorful revolution, a months-long series of protests that destabilized the Gruevski regime.

The challenges facing these groups today are numerous: exclusive solidarities, dependency on financial markets, a lack of productive capacity, and profound class cleavages. Yet, unlike activists in the Ukraine and other Eastern European postrevolutionary nations, Macedonian progressive groups have gained influence in the current government. Their ability to shift the fragile postauthoritarian political landscape toward the left on issues such as taxation, redistribution, education, and employment rights constitutes an exciting opportunity for inventing a grammar for post(il)liberal politics—one to which Western progressives should pay close attention as they embark on the long journey toward post-Trumpism.