Moving Beyond ‘Survival Mode’ – Balkan’s Core Challenge

The hugely popular computer game Minecraft has two modes – survival and creative. In ‘survival’ mode the player must collect resources, build structures, battle mobs and manage hunger. In ‘creative’ mode, the player enjoys good health and peace. In taking full advantage of this hunger-free situation, the player can create large constructions more easily.

It seems to me that the Balkans is still stuck in ‘survival’ mode, and it has been so for the last 1500 plus years. Since the days of the Byzantine and Ottoman empires, Balkan people have related to the predominantly autocratic power structures in three main ways, which also represent the three cornerstones of the ‘survival’ mode:

3 ways survival system

Brown-nose the system

All of the Balkans was under the authoritarian and centralistic rule of the Ottoman Empire, and the Byzantine Empire before that. As new nation-states most of the countries explored monarchy, albeit for a short period, with some hints of infant democracy. Most of the Balkan states were pulled into or participating actively in two internal wars and two world wars. Foreign military forces occupied their lands. In the post World War II era, the Balkan countries became either socialist or communist. Up until the fall of the Berlin Wall the predominant form of government in the Balkans was dictatorial, led by one person, be it an Emperor, Sultan, Tsar or a Politburo Secretary.

To stay alive in such as system, people showed blind obedience to the ruler and his armory of political power. To move ahead in such as system, a person had to go beyond quite obedience and show vocal support of the ruler, system and ideology. A person’s power and wealth were dependent on the closeness to the ruler. This was the age of palace intrigues and backroom deals, a constant fight for the protection and blessing of the ruler. Tributes, in the form of material goods, soldiers and blind commitment to the prevailing ideology, were paid to the ruler to secure one’s position at the Court or in the Party. In return, the ruler created space for the lackeys in which they could do very much what they pleased at the cost of the local population.

Cheat the system

While the ‘game’ of winning the blessing of the ruler was limited to a very small minority, the large majority of people in the Balkans could only dream of such a good fortune to fall upon them. For the ordinary man and woman life was hard, most often played out as a subsistence farmer on a small plot of land. Every man was on his own, and the rulers did their best to keep people apart, applying the ‘divide a rule’ method for building mistrust among people and blind obedience to the ruler. Horizontal cooperation among farmers, an otherwise favored method to reach higher yields, was not encouraged by the ruler. Economies of scale and better management of the agricultural process would release some ordinary people from the daily chores of survival, giving them the opportunity to think about life, science and worst of all politics. Keeping people hungry, tired and ignorant is always the best way to uphold a draconian state.

Unable to organize themselves into viable political forces strong enough to challenge the Emperor, Sultan, Tsar or Politburo, ordinary man turned his attention inwards, putting himself and family first. With no means available to change the system as a whole, Balkan man set out to make the most of what was in front of him. To fight off the constant harassment of officialdom, demanding tax, conscription and obedience, the ordinary man adopted a million creative ways to cheat the powerful and the system. Agricultural production was hidden in secret storage spaces in the mountains far away from the Ottoman tax collectors, a habit that continued under the Tsars’ rule. During communism, people played lip service to the atheist gospel of Marx and Lenin, while sneaking off to church on Sunday mornings. “The state cheats us that they pay us, and we cheat the state that we work” is probably the most telling proverb of the communist era. As the systems before it, the communist system was dysfunctional and deeply hypocritical, as George Orwell’s master-piece ‘Animal Farm’ so vividly describes. Cheating the system had by now become a ‘way of life’, a habit and a norm. And as we all know, “old habits die hard”.

During the times of autocratic rule, Balkan man could not rely on the official system to supply him with anything else but the most basic needs of subsistence and protection. And even then the supply was highly arbitrary. To stay alive, ordinary man had to look after himself and he took what he could. With no equality under the law, only the supreme ruler and his henchmen had the authority to judge if a man had taken too much. When caught with the hand in the cookie jar, the ordinary man were most likely to attempt to ‘brown-nose the system’ to get out of the jam.

Hate the system

Throughout the authoritarian rule of the Balkans, people learned to hate the system. Ordinary man saw nothing but hardship being served by the Emperor, Sultan, Tsar or Politburo. If he was very fortunate and witty he could brown-nose his way to a powerful position, but again, for the overwhelming majority time was spent cheating the system merely to survive. As a result of the fundamental divisions in society, between the have’s and have not’s, between the ruling elite and ordinary men with no rights, people thought of the world in terms of ‘us’ and ‘they’. ‘They’ were the enemy, no matter their constitutional status or nationality. ‘They’ represent a system of unlimited and arbitrary application of political power. And the badness of ‘they’ gave ordinary man the moral justification to cheat the system. Unfortunately, the mistrust between the rulers (officials representing state institutions and public administration) and people linger on in the Balkans even in the more democratic setting of the present.


In order to move forward in our development, we must first accept that it was the application of a combination of context specific tools that helped us survive 1500 years of authoritarian regimes in the Balkans. From the constant strive to survive a set of specific norms and values emerged, which justified and upheld these individual survival methods. Unfortunately, it is the same norms and values that reinforce an authoritarian mode of government. Consequently, we must recognize that some of our norms and values are not naturally supportive of the democratic and free market systems.

We need to change within ourselves first in order for our collective system to change! The other way around is not culturally feasible, as the last 25 years of social, political and economic transformation based on international ideas and blue-print solutions has shown. Some of our norms, values and habits are stuck in the ‘survival’ mode of the past, which effectively hinders the emergence of a more ‘creative’ mode in society.

Today, the new political elites in most Balkan countries are more or less deliberately perverting the new societal ideas of democracy, civil liberties, equality, justice, free speech and competition. Deliberately or not, they are effectively hindering the development of a more civil, informed, competitive and equal societal system to emerge, capable of delivering real improvements in the well-being of the majority of citizens. For the political elites this new world of pluralism, openness to share different worldviews and free speech threatens the traditional mode of government – “By the few, for the few”. When in power, the newly elected officials simply do not know any other way of executing power than the authoritarian way.

To execute power like an Emperor, Sultan, Tsar or Politburo Secretary is the historical norm. The political culture that upholds authoritarianism is still alive and kicking in the Balkans. In post-1989 Balkans, there is a tendency among the electorates to lift up and elect anybody with the characteristics of an enlightened Despot! A super-human leader who single handedly creates a strong and wealthy state, in which citizens can go on doing what we do best – brown-nose, cheat and hate the system for their individual and short-term gain. This is a far cry from the informed, vocal and engaged citizenry required to uphold a successful democratic political system and a functioning capitalist economic system for that matter.

After 1500 years of looking upwards for societal change, it is very difficult for people to realize that democracy must be built bottom-up, needs continuous nourishment and requires active citizens in order to function properly. There is a democracy deficit in the Balkans, which the political elites are quick to misuse to their own advantage. This is one reason why, despite their declared commitment to democracy and free market systems, the Balkan countries remain incapable of delivering real improvement in the well-being of the large majority of the population. The inability to switch from ‘survival’ to ‘creative’ mode is locking the Balkans in a vicious circle of authoritarianism, ignorance and poverty. As a consequence, people’s desire to leave the Balkans remains high, especially among the young, educated and good.

The historical and cultural contexts of the Balkans makes building viable, democratic nation-states with competitive private sectors and participatory citizenry so much more challenging. Since 1989, the drive to support to the Balkans in the process of social, economic and political transformation is led by foreign institutions and organisations, such as the World Bank, IMF, UN, EU and multiple other bilateral and multilateral donor agencies and Non-Government Organisations. The EU has opened the door to membership to all Balkan countries when they can fulfill the Copenhagen criteria:

  • political: stability of institutions guaranteeing democracy, the rule of law, human rights and respect for and protection of minorities;
  • economic: existence of a functioning market economy and the capacity to cope with competitive pressure and market forces within the Union;
  • acceptance of the Community acquis: ability to take on the obligations of membership, including adherence to the aims of political, economic and monetary union. (

Since democracy and free market competition is historically alien to the Balkans, introducing them is an enormous task and responsibility for the international sponsors. Taking into account the never-ending struggle to run fair elections, uphold a professional political dialogue, and keeping the executive and judicial powers away from each other, meeting the political criteria appears a long way off. The Balkan countries’ whooping trade deficits show, beyond any doubt, that none of them are ready to meet the economic part of the Copenhagen criteria.

There is a tendency among the relatively inexperienced and poor domestic political elites and citizens to view the international representatives as a new class of rulers. The internationals hold the key to future and fortune, and they have the financial resources that these countries desperately need to transform. All the Balkan countries have to do is to dance along to the tune of the new powers. It follows that the ‘new rulers’ receive the same treatment as all other rulers before them – they are brown-nosed, cheated and hated. Flattered by the attention and blinded by power, there is a strong tendency among bureaucrats within the international institutions to ‘go native’, become prisoners to the worldviews of the few and establish lucrative networks with the local business-political elite.

Rather than promoting the virtues of democracy, civility, transparency, justice and free markets as the corner-stones of a system capable of improving people’s lives, the international civil servants, like the long line of native rulers before them, surround themselves with sycophants, whose only mission it is to distort and pervert the transformation process to their own advantage. It’s a classic case of “do what I say, don’t do what I do” and even the smallest child can see through that hypocrisy.

To successfully support the struggle of transformation in the Balkans, international institutions and organisations must stand firm in their beliefs and commitment to the values, norms and habits that uphold democracy, civility and free markets, and they must act in accordance with these beliefs and principles. They cannot not allow themselves to be brown-nosed and cheated, and disliked as a result of association with the domestic ‘they’.

If the mission to change the Balkans away from a history of ignorance, war, despotism and poverty fails, it’s because the world’s proponents of democracy, liberty, self-determination, civil rights and free competition did a lousy job in convincing the domestic elites and populations how the whole system actually works (not only its individual parts) and where the satisfaction is in pursuing an inclusive development mission, which focuses on the entire population, rather than on the lucky few at the top of the societal food-chain.


About Jakob Modéer

22 years of corporate and international investor experience as well as private sector development project management, consultancy in private sector policy and business advisory services, and direct consultancy to companies in South East Europe (and now a blogger on socio-economic issues)
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