One-on-one | Politics

Gëzim Krasniqi: After the populist tragedy in Europe, it’s the ideal moment for the left

By - 26.12.2018

Political sociologist talks to K2.0 about the shifting political landscape in the Balkans, Europe and the world.

The year 2018 was accompanied by increased concern over the empowerment of far-right parties and the rise of populism. At the same time, results from election processes in some countries, for example in Germany and France, mark the fall of historically left parties, leaving their futures unclear.

Simultaneously, the weakening of parties to the left and the rise of those to the right has led to the removal of center ground politicians like German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has recently resigned from her position as the leader of the Christian-Democratic Union (CDU), and has announced that this will be her last mandate as Chancellor. Furthermore, 2018 has been accompanied by ongoing negotiations between the EU and the UK regarding Brexit. The UK’s planned exit from the EU has raised many questions about the future of the latter.

Meanwhile, in the domestic political scene, 2018 has seen an increase in statements that many observers have described as populist or nationalist. Beyond this, we have seen an influx in controversial statements regarding the EU, and discourse that could lead to a deeper cooperation between Kosovo and Albania. But it hasn’t just been the approach of Albanian politicians to the EU that has changed. The non-liberalization of visas for Kosovo has raised many questions and gained the attention of critics over the EU’s treatment of Kosovo.

K2.0 discussed these, and other topics, with Gëzim Krasniqi, a political sociologist and co-chair of the Masters Program for Nationalism Studies at the University of Edinburgh in Great Britain.

Krasniqi studied political science at the University of Prishtina, and democracy and human rights in Sarajevo and Bologna. He has also studied nationalism at the Central European University (CEU) in Budapest and received a PhD in sociology from the University of Edinburgh in 2014.

Between 2014 and 2016, Krasniqi was an Alexander Nash Fellow in Albanian Studies at the University College of London (UCL). He has published several studies on ethnic conflict, nationalism and citizenship in prestigious international journals.

Photo courtesy of Gëzim Krasniqi.

K2.0: What do you make of the rise of the far right in Europe and the world in recent years? How do you explain the situation in Hungary, in Poland, the electoral rise of the right in Germany and the Netherlands, or the recent victory of Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil?

Gëzim Krasniqi: There is a general approach in academic circles and intellectual discussions that the rise of populism is first and foremost related to the economic crisis of 2008. But beyond the economic crisis, it is also a manifestation of growing discontent among certain social and political strata toward the rise of inequality.

Not all populist parties belong to the far right, because if we deconstruct their populist discourse, we see that in fact many of their policies are not typical for the right. I think this phenomenon is best defined as “national populism.” The main reason is that they use the differentiation “us and them” on the vertical plain — us, the majority population, disadvantaged in the political and economic system in relation to them, the elites, but also on the horizontal plain where “the other” appears as an ethnic category, be it as a community within a group or as a different country.

For example, if we compare the populist discourse in Hungary and in the U.S., we see that Orban and [U.S. President] Trump use the same strategy by speaking against elites — liberal elites in the U.S. or [George] Soros in Hungary. They speak about “the other” as states that are against the national interests of these two states.

If we want to make a typology between populisms, we can notice that [Turkey’s President] Erdoğan, [Hungary’s Prime Minister] Orban and Trump are much more similar to each other than to [Marine] Le Pen in France or right wing parties in Denmark and the Netherlands.

Northwestern Europe differs a lot for one reason. Rather than protecting Christianity as a religion — as is the case in Hungary or the Czech Republic — here [in northwestern Europe] there is a mobilization of liberal elites who use the populist discourse to protect certain values of European civilization, which include secularism.

The Netherlands is an outstandingly interesting case for understanding that populist parties are not in essence [necessarily] right wing or religious, rather they are parties that protect secular values, women’s rights and LGBT rights. But in both cases, Islam and immigrants from Muslim countries are increasingly being seen as a danger to European values by populist parties.

Each society has specific problems and the rise of populism is a reflection of the specific circumstances of these societies. It’s very hard to generalize. Despite this catch-all term ‘populism’ — if we analyze these countries we see that there are substantial differences between them.

But in general, we can say that there are multiple factors that are related to the economic crisis, demographic changes, which are happening in many countries, the rise of populations that have immigrant origins, debates related to religious rights of groups that have recently arrived as immigrants, etc..

For many theoreticians there are parallels between the Great Depression in the 1930s — which contributed to the birth of fascism — and the 2008 economic crisis. How much do you think the latter can influence a repetition of history by inciting extremist political currents?

I think the analogy works, but is quite limited because the global context is now completely different. Although many parties in the European Union act in exclusive ways toward other states or certain ethnic and religious groups, they have a much higher dose of being part of a wider civilization.

I’m referring to the renowned political sociologist Rogers Brubaker, who said when speaking about civilizationism that what is happening to Europe today is that Christianity can no longer be considered just as Christianity or a belief, rather it is considered an idea of belonging. So Christianity is a value of European civilization that goes beyond national borders and shows that Europe is aware that some of its problems come from outside of Europe, not from other EU countries.

In a wider context, the normalization of the exclusive political discourse is concerning. If we recall the political situation in the early 2000s — when the west was at the zenith of global political and economic domination, and liberal values were much more accepted and prevalent — the EU had imposed sanctions on Austria as a result of [Jörg] Haider’s victory, and there was no willingness to accept a populist and right wing discourse which is similar to the ideology you mentioned. But we have seen big changes in the past decades, so much so that when you look at EU countries you see leading parties that resemble neo-fascist movements.

"The best populist strategy used in this region is Milošević’s strategy. Today, he is mainly studied as a nationalist leader, but in essence he represented a par excellence case of a populist politician."

I think that in the European context, there is little belief that we can have a mobilization that is of such a large scale that it could lead to a repeat of what happened in World War II. But this doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be careful with how we oppose the growing phenomenon of right wing parties, because in many cases the discourse is more or less similar, in the sense of how the idea of national superiority is perceived, and how certain ethnic and religious categories are demonized.

Some parties in Kosovo and Albania have been criticized for their nationalist approaches. How effective have these populist trends been in Albania’s and Kosovo’s politics? Can we say that in Kosovo and Albania there is a risk posed from the empowerment of extremist parties?

The problem for Albanians and Kosovars, in particular, is a bit different because unfortunately in Europe’s new populist discourse we are part of “the others.” Kosovo and Albania are not seen as an integral part of Europe. Most populist parties in Europe have a considerably narrow definition of Europe. They generally refer to Northwestern Europe, and often not even Central and Eastern Europe are included in the category of European civilization.

The second problem for Albanians, but also for the Balkans in general, is that we haven’t had typical political or ideological divisions between ‘the right’ and ‘the left.’ Populist parties in Europe are mainly closer to traditional parties of the far right wing, although many of them are ideologically undefined.

Among Albanians and their political parties, we see a reflection over the position of Albanians in relation to the EU. For a while we have noted a decrease in the trust that Albanian political parties have for the EU. This comes as a result of the EU often acting based on double standards, as is the case with the rejection of visa liberalization for Kosovo, or the prolongation of opening [accession] negotiations with Albania.

This has made Albanian political parties more critical toward the EU, although Albanian parties have historically been pro EU, and there was consensus that the EU is by default a good thing; which is not the case in Serbia, where there is a lot of debate over whether Serbia should be oriented toward Russia, China or the EU, and whether Europe is compatible with Serbia’s system of values and religion.

However, in Kosovo and Albania, I don’t expect to see a rise of parties that propagate the far right ideology, or radical Islamic parties, which are in essence anti-European. We’ve seen tendencies among certain parties, but most of them have not been successful in elections.

For many analysts, the discourse used by Ramush Haradinaj, Edi Rama or Albin Kurti represents the same populist trends that are notable throughout the world. How much have the political scenes in Kosovo and Albania been influenced by elements of populism?

If we start from the Balkan context, the best populist strategy used in this region is [Slobodan] Milošević’s strategy. Today, he is mainly studied as a nationalist leader, but in essence he represented a par excellence case of a populist politician. He was not religious, as would have been expected of a typical nationalist Serb due to the role of the [Serbian Orthodox] Church in the modern Serbian identity. When he needed it, he used the Church for his interests, he used Croatian Serbs and in the end he abandoned them, and the same happened in Kosovo with the Kumanova Agreement.

I think that because there was no differentiation between ‘the left’ and ‘the right’ in the Balkans, all political parties were populist. But because of the context, populism in the Balkans is different from European populism because economic problems in the Balkans are different. The Balkans is mainly economically undeveloped. Then, there is the issue of economic and political transition, and transition from the war.

"Orban is the worst example that the EU could give to the Balkans and its corrupt politicians."


[In Kosovo,] Haradinaj’s case is more specific because of the person. He is completely careless regarding the image he creates in public. Moreover, in Albania and Kosovo, there is no coherence about political talk and action. Maybe Vetëvendosje is more coherent than other parties. Its policies — although it has never been in power — are a bit more coherent and are part of a socio-democratic mentality for organizing the state and society, which is manifested through state investments in education, healthcare, agriculture — so the idea of state development.

Going back to the global arena, how have leftist parties around the continent reacted to the rise of right wing parties? What is the situation with leftist parties in general?

I think that one of the main problems is the crisis of the left and I think this crisis happened as a result of the fall of the Soviet Union. From the start of the 20th century, the left has never been in a more disadvantaged position, politically, because its impact has fallen drastically. For example, in Germany, the Social Democratic Party [SDP] experienced a total debacle in the last elections.

Most of these parties are having a crisis because most historic demands from the left wing — for example, the right to vote, limited working hours, minimum wage and others — have been realized by leftist parties or center right parties, which have accepted these demands as legitimate. Thus today, leftist parties are in a crisis of their political cause. The only political cause of the left wing that continues to be relevant is the cause of economic and social inequality. But unfortunately, this cause has been appropriated by the far right wing.

But the left is in a big crisis in the sense that it cannot find its right role in the modern world. Leftist parties have a political schizophrenia in the sense that historically they were part of the international movement against colonialism, for the right to vote, for gender equality, for the protection of the working class and so on. But gradually, they have transformed into nationalist parties, meaning they started to protect the national cause.

But because of developments and the rise of populism and big alliances that are being formed between populist parties or the illiberal circles, the only opportunity that the left has is to return to its origin, meaning to abandon the national identity which they have adopted for decades on end, and to mobilize for international causes.

Paradoxically, in Great Britain the first party that used the slogan “British jobs for British workers” was the Labour Party at the time when Gordon Brown was prime minister [2007-10]. But the case of Jeremy Corbyn is proving that Great Britain had a big appetite for a proper leftist party which also propagates ideas such as the re-nationalisation of public services, for example rail transport.

"Incertitude in the EU comes more so as a result of the inability to manage critical voices within the EU than as a consequences of Great Britain’s exit."

Cynics in Great Britain say that Corbyn is very good, but will never get into power. This was [Tony] Blair’s argument — ideology is not important as long as you are in opposition, and the objectives of political parties are reduced once they come into power because only when you are in power can you implement certain policies and change the direction of social developments.

I wouldn’t be so pessimistic. The recent case of the just about meteoric rise of the Green Party [in Germany] is an indication that this party, which historically has been very close to the left, has, in the best way, utilized the fall of centrist parties — in this case the SDP — and the rise of the far right wing. According to recent polls, the Green Party is the second party in power after CDU [the Christian-Democratic Union].

So after the populist tragedy in Europe, we can see a rise of much more progressive parties because the left has an ideal moment to mobilize not only classic forces of the left — the working class — but also the part of society that is more liberal and more educated.

How much do you think populist tendencies will be incited by the departure of key centrist figures like Angela Merkel, for example? How much more difficult will it be for new centrist figures to face populism?

One of the main effects of the parties of the center, or as [British-Palestinian Marxist historian] Tariq Ali calls it the “extreme center” or the “Third Wave,” has been the reconfiguration of the ideological dimension and the huge shift of the center toward the right.

Although many of them have historically been leftist — for example the Labour Party in Great Britain with Tony Blair — their policies represent a continuity of [Margaret] Thatcher’s policies. For example, labourists have continued the privatization process of many state and public enterprises that existed in Great Britain.

I don’t think Merkel’s case is very illustrative because she has done the opposite of many centrist parties. In most cases — from the U.S. with [Bill] Clinton, to Labourists in Great Britain and the SDP with [Gerhard] Schröder — they were leftist parties who shifted toward the right.

Merkel did the opposite — a party that was traditionally right wing shifted in the opposite direction. In many respects, Merkel adopted the policies of the Green Party, the SDP and the FDP [the Free Democratic Party] of former exterior minister [Guido] Westerwelle, which were its main opponents, and has managed to destroy them in the electoral dimension by implementing many of their policies — pro LGBT rights, minimum wage and labor rights, naturalization of immigrants, and against nuclear plants, etc..

However, I think that her departure will have huge consequences first and foremost for the political order in Europe, because Germany has been one of Europe’s main pillars.

What is happening in Europe is a manifestation of new politics, which is followed by [Emmanuel] Macron, who is moving to create new politics beyond the right and the left, which he is calling progressive. So the vacuum, which will be left by Merkel, depends greatly on Macron’s success in reforming the EU’s political system, but as we saw with the recent mass protests in Paris, Macron’s policies have started to become unpopular in France. A weak president within the country will have very little chance to influence political developments in the wider context of the EU.

What is your perspective on Brexit and what long term consequences will there be for European politics after the UK’s exit from the EU?

Proponents of Brexit in Great Britain proudly spoke about how Great Britain’s case will be used as a model for others. They expected the EU to enter a huge cycle of crisis. But what happened is the EU reflected and mobilized greatly in the negotiation process — so almost two years have passed and in the end, an agreement has been reached, which has not satisfied either party.

Secondly, within the EU, Eurosceptic populist parties, such as the National Front [in France] or Five Stars in Italy — despite their initial support for Brexit — have today modified their political stance in relation to Brussels and the idea of the EU. So the influence of Brexit will depend more on the way events will unfold, and on the success of Germany and France in politically reconfiguring the EU.

Incertitude in the EU comes more as a result of the inability to manage critical voices within the EU than as a consequences of Great Britain’s exit; because I think the EU and Great Britain will take part in intensive negotiations in the future to reach a new cooperative agreement, which will most likely keep Great Britain very close to the EU politically and economically, since it is very problematic to distance the EU from a very powerful territory and economy, which has invested for half a century in close political and cultural ties with the rest of the EU.

"The toleration that has been shown for Serbia is problematic, but so is the toleration for the five countries that have not recognized Kosovo, which is the second dimension of contestation of the European project in Kosovo."

It is concerning if the EU continues to show signs of fatigue, be it in its expansion towards the Western Balkans, or its inability to manage negative phenomena within its borders. For instance, Orban is the worst example that the EU could give to the Balkans and its corrupt politicians. We have the case of [former Prime Minister of Macedonia Nikola] Gurveski[’s refuge] in Hungary — an EU country is protecting a person who has been officially sentenced.

The EU’s economic power continues to be very great, but the political radiance of the idea of Europe — a supranational political union that is open, cooperative and acceptable in relation to different ethnic, religious and judicial values — has been seriously put into question as a result of these new developments and the rise of populist parties in Europe.

Regarding the issue of potentially changing Kosovo’s borders, it seems there is no unity in the positions of EU member states. For example, Germany declared itself as categorically against the idea of ‘correcting’ borders. How do you explain the divergences in the positions of members states?

Historically, the EU has had problems in creating a unified political front, especially regarding foreign affairs. After the creation of the position of the High Representative of the EU [for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy], people who have been appointed in this position have generally been politically irrelevant. None of them had a rich political background or great political power. This shows that the EU’s ambitions in foreign affairs have been very limited, because the interests of the main EU states have often differed.

In Kosovo’s specific case, debate over border modification or territory exchange shows that the EU has given up on the model that it has used until now, through which it has tried to persuade Serbia with sticks and carrots, with the idea that the closer Serbia gets to the EU, the more cooperative it will become, and ultimately it will accept the reality that Kosovo is an independent state.

However, the toleration that has been shown for Serbia is problematic, but so is the toleration for the five countries that have not recognized Kosovo, which is the second dimension of contestation of the European project in Kosovo. Not even the biggest pessimists would believe that 10 years later, these countries would still be resisting the recognition of Kosovo’s independence.

The case of visa liberalization for Kosovo is one in which the EU has no argument — not political, not judicial, not moral — to isolate Kosovo, while it has approved visa liberalization for countries that are much more problematic than Kosovo, for example Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova, which have issues with territories they do not control, with organized crime, with corruption, etc..

Today, Kosovo has completely lost its importance in global terms, be it because of changes in the EU or political changes in the U.S., but also changes in the global sphere. So it is completely illogical and unacceptable for high level diplomatic officials to spend hours debating over the modalities of the Brussels Agreement — for example whether the bridge in Mitrovica will be one or two stories high. The format of the dialogue in Brussels has lost its sense in the wider global context because of overwhelming developments — the war in Syria, the crisis in Ukraine, the trade war between the U.S. and China, etc..

A big question remains, because we do not know the details of what is being discussed [regarding border changes]. I don’t think we’re talking about preliminary ideas, but about more concrete ideas. It seems both parties — the presidents of both countries — could be in more advanced phases of very concrete discussions about the modalities that could be included in this new solution.

This raises a number of dilemmas. The first is the debate over its global effects. For example, I am surprised by how easy it is for many political analysts to see changing the border with bilateral consent as a victory for Russia. If Kosovo and Serbia sign the bilateral agreement, this is the strongest argument against the political strategy of Russia, because all of its political interventions are unilateral.

For example, Russia has not recognized Abkhazia because Abkhazia and Georgia had a bilateral agreement, and it also didn’t annex Crimea in agreement with Ukraine. So every bilateral agreement limits Russia’s unilateral approach in the global context.

Secondly, for Kosovo it is very important to see what this means, what political horizons it opens. An agreement for changing borders cannot be implemented without annulling the Ahtisaari Plan, because that plan guarantees the territorial entirety and many other elements that this agreement influences.

Germany was outstandingly resistant, but it has a problem: it has no plan B. So Kosovo doesn’t enter negotiations with Serbia over territorial exchange, but does Germany guarantee that Kosovo will be recognized by Serbia with its current borders and the Ahtisaari Plan, and that it will be accepted into the UN? There seems to be no guarantee from Germany in this regard.

At the end of November, the governments of Albania and Kosovo met in Peja. But even before that there seemed to be an atmosphere of potential unification between Kosovo and Albania, which was enforced by the idea of territory exchange with Serbia. How do you see this?

I think the idea of national unification still circulates at the level of individual and collective desire, as a historical objective. But if we look at the political reality, there is no genuine project for national unification.

For a long time, the political discourse has included the idea of national unification in the EU as one version. Today, not even Vetëvendosje — as the party that won the most votes in the last general election and the first to use this idea — has a clearly articulated plan about how this would happen, what the steps would be, the modalities, about whether Kosovo would preserve its institutional entirety, whether it would be a federation, a confederation, or whether Kosovo would be annexed by Albania or vice versa…

Even at the political level, or the level of academic debate, there are no slightly clearer ideas that are based on certain premises. The first premise is whether or not we have exhausted all opportunities for cooperation that are allowed to us in the current political context. No. As we know, the economy is suffering greatly. Albania is very resistant in its relations with Kosovar businesses.

" The EU has completely disregarded Kosovo as a political actor."

Secondly, what are the benefits, besides the identity and emotional dimension? Historically, there were multiple cases of unification. In the case of the unification of the two Germanies, which is often mentioned as an example, we had a political and economic asymmetry. West Germany was much more powerful than East Germany, and despite the fact that it has been one of the most developed countries in the world, it still pays overwhelming sums for the stabilization of East Germany within the unified state.

On the other side, Albania and Kosovo are the poorest countries in the region and Europe. Even if the opportunity arose, Albania has no economic, institutional or political potential to absorb Kosovo. Albania still has serious issues of territory control in relation to organized crime and the cultivation of drugs. Similarly, Kosovo has control issues over all of its territory, for example in the north.

Another is the case of Yemen. North Yemen and South Yemen were unified in 1990, and today Yemen is one of the most underdeveloped countries in the world. So unification in itself does not produce economic superpowers, because often in the political discourse of Vetëvendosje and others we hear superlative terms with the idea that unification would make us much stronger.

In the modern world, there are countries that have very low population levels but are economic superpowers. We have the case of Singapore, or Estonia, which is an example of how a country with 1.3 million residents is among the world’s leading economies and societies in terms of digitalization. Population quantity and territory size do not automatically produce economic power.

So I think that often, politicians in Albania and Kosovo launch these ideas for [a few] reasons. Firstly, to show the commitment that they allegedly have toward the idea of national unity; secondly, to detract attention from internal political issues; and thirdly, to intimidate the EU, because there is a growing concern that the EU is acting unjustly.

To link the subject of right wing parties in Europe with the case of Kosovo, now that Kosovo is nearing the end of a very important phase, in terms of both negotiations with Serbia and visa liberalization, how much influence does the empowerment of populist parties in EU countries have on these processes?

We noted the offensive and completely unacceptable behavior of the EU in relation to the tax [on Serbian products]. The EU has never responded to [Serbia’s] continuous violations, for example the energy agreement or the blockade of Kosovo’s air space, which bring tremendously big financial costs for Kosovo.

The moment Kosovo adopts a protective measure, the behavior of the EU is almost hysterical. This shows that the EU has completely disregarded Kosovo as a political actor, something that requires further reflection by Kosovo’s institutions.

If this happens in the current political context, imagine how much more negligent the European Parliament could be if it is dominated by far right parties that are mainly anti-Islamic, are very problematic in their relations with national minorities, and are especially exclusive toward immigrants, considering that we are one of the peoples that immigrate the most in the region.

It is quite concerning how they [right wing parties] are expected to behave in relation to Kosovo, considering that there is no will for approving visa liberalization. Imagine how willing they would be to have Kosovo apply for the status of candidate member and to open negotiations with the EU.K

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity. The interview was conducted in Albanian.

Feature image courtesy of Gëzim Krasniqi.