“The Balkans begin on Rennweg.” This refrain, or iterations of it, is frequently heard from observers of Austria, smirking as they show off their knowledge of the Alpine Republic, or from Austrians themselves, sighing wearily as they bemoan the latest corruption scandal.
The expression has been used and abused to such an extent that its meaning is no longer clear. Tracing its evolution over time betrays the context in which it was meant. Although (posthumously) attributed to Klemens von Metternich, who was describing the street behind his palais in the third district of Vienna, the absolutist chancellor actually referred to “the Orient”. It was not until 1913 that it was bastardised into its Balkan iteration by the Wiener Zeitung, having hitherto also doubled as “Asia”.
To paraphrase the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek, the Balkans is synonymous in international discourse with “the Other”. Northeast and upward from Serbia, each state would qualify itself out of the region, with its unfortunate neighbours falling on the other side of the frontier. This reflects the extent to which “the Balkans” as a term is a projection by external actors onto a region that is almost impossible to define, be it geographically, culturally, linguistically, politically or economically. Like most identities, especially in multicultural gateways, it is hybrid.
The Austro-Hungarian Empire was multiethnic, but the extent to which it was multicultural and multilingual was limited to the private spheres of the working and peasant classes as well as some reified noble circles. Public life was no melange: ascent through society and career was partly contingent upon becoming culturally “German”. This effectively remains the case.
Nonetheless, the region that comprised the former Yugoslavia has strongly influenced Austria and continues to do so. Recently, in a webinar hosted by the Vienna Institute for International Economic Studies (wiiw), the outgoing high representative for Bosnia & Herzegovina, Valentin Inzko, mused that the collapse of Yugoslavia grew belatedly out of the same tensions as its Austro-Hungarian antecedent.
In this light, the Republic of Austria – which was formed in 1919 and again in 1945 – underwent the same transformation as its Balkan peers. Cobbled together – albeit involuntarily – from a mishmash of autonomously-minded regions on a cultural German basis, the republic was confronted with the management of minority affairs, particularly Hungarians and Croats in Burgenland, Czechs and Slovaks in Lower Austria and Slovenes in Carinthia.
Longstanding issues with respect to administrative use of the Slovene language in Carinthia, for example, were only finally resolved by ad hoc compromise in 2011, ending decades of bitter feuding that had a direct impact on state and local elections – and provided a tub on which one of the pioneers of modern right-wing populism could reliably thump; namely, the Freedom Party’s (FPÖ’s) Jörg Haider, who ran Carinthia as its governor from 1989-1991 and again from 1999 until his death in 2008.
Balkan diasporas continue to shape Austria now as much as if not more than they did over a century ago. Some 364,000 of Austria’s 2021 population of 8.85mn variously hail from Serbia, Bosnia, Croatia, Slovenia and Kosovo. If the definition of Balkan is expanded to Romania and Hungary, the number increases by a further 220,000. These numbers only account for the first generation; if the second and third were to be included, the share of citizens and residents of “Balkan” origin would balloon.
Diaspora affairs also feed into politics, especially in swing districts. The Serb diaspora, for example, are a pivotal constituency in electoral battlegrounds within Vienna, where the Social Democratic Party (SPÖ) and FPÖ compete for their votes. The latter even refuses to recognise the independence of Kosovo and supports the full secession of Republika Srpska from Bosnia.
Balkan communities are not only passive constituencies but are also active in public life. Alma Zadic – who came to Austria as a refugee from Bosnia in the 1990s – currently serves as the minister of justice. Zadic is admittedly an exception to the rule, as first-generation diasporas may rarely rise to participate at such a level. But the contribution of the Habsburg-era minorities in the provinces is clear.
Indeed, the two Austrians to have served as the high representative for Bosnia – Wolfgang Petritsch and Inzko – both hail from the Slovene minority in Carinthia, as does Peter Handke, the genocide-denying winner of the Nobel Peace Prize for Literature. Fred Sinowatz, who served as chancellor between 1983-86, belonged to the Croat minority in Burgenland. Lujo Toncic-Sorinj, who served as foreign minister in the 1960s and thereafter as general secretary of the Council of the Europe, was a Dalmatian aristocrat.
“The Scandal Republic”
Usage of the Metternich refrain has evolved not only to capture Austria’s proximity to the Balkans – large parts of which it influenced culturally and institutionally through the Habsburg Empire – but also its record of corruption. The newspaper Die Presse quoted an unnamed politician of the conservative People’s Party (ÖVP) in the 1960s, who riffed on the first sentence of the constitution: “Austria is a German-speaking Balkan republic. Its corruption emanates from the people.”
Austria has such a long experience of corruption scandals that a book could be written exploring its history through this lens. This record is not really captured by international indices as it is not directly experienced by the vast majority of the population. And although the scandals that do blow up can have significant implications for taxpayers (see Hypo Alpe Adria, Eurofighter), the corruption itself tends to be exported – or otherwise snowballs quietly, behind the closed doors of board rooms or (supposedly) encrypted messaging channels.
Nonetheless, the widening methodologies of corruption indices are shedding more light on the Austrian variant. Last year, the European Commission began publishing its annual rule of law reports. Austria did not escape criticism: in the 2020 report, it ranked third in the EU for the number of times “concerns” and “serious concerns” were used. In 2021, the Group of States Against Corruption (GRECO) called out Austria for its “globally unsatisfactory” performance in having implemented only two of its 17 anticorruption recommendations.
This reflects an institutional structure that is not rotten with corruption so much as it is pockmarked with loopholes through which good practices may fall. There is an increasing awareness of this domestically. In June, a group of jurists, judges and prosecutors launched a movement to challenge the culture of corruption in politics and business, prompted by the public investigations and inquiries that grew out of the “Ibizagate” scandal, which had exposed suspected abuses of power by the coalition of Chancellor Sebastian Kurz’s ÖVP and the FPÖ between 2017-2019.
Comparing apricots and plums
The question is whether there is anything peculiarly “Balkan” about Austria’s corruption specifically and political culture more generally – or, indeed, whether Balkan states are themselves unique in this respect. Certainly, the institutional architecture and public discourse of countries in the Balkans are informed by the challenges of anchoring a state in a multicultural region where ethnic preconceptions of nationhood too often subsume civic definitions.
At the same time, defining nationhood along ethnic lines does not simply result in minorities going away – even in the event of descents into genocide. So, over the past two centuries, but particularly after the respective collapses of the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires as well as Yugoslavia, the only alternative to conflict was begrudging cohabitation between stakeholders.
The stakeholders are organised variously in national and/or ideological groupings, which are represented by political parties, but sustained by coalitions of interests, most of which are financially motivated, seeking to benefit from the (re)distribution of resources. In this sense, the ideals of political parties, be they sectarian or ideological in nature, bely the clientelist reality of their priorities.
Indeed, in agreeing to share power in certain areas, stakeholders may protect the interests of their core supporters – officially their constituents but more often their clients. While this politicises institutions, it is informed by the need to increase oversight of rival factions, thereby informally compensating for checks and balances.
But it is also conducive to a culture of cynicism and patronage, facilitating the formation of networks of informal and private interests, which thrive on the trading of horses and scratching of backs. Cue the entry of intermediaries, lobbyists, local barons and their families and friends, and the capture of media, all at the expense of the rule of law.
This remains the case in states even where ‘strongmen’ have emerged, particularly Serbia but also Albania and, previously, Montenegro. Authoritarian and autocratic models of governance are simply different ways of organising the same phenomenon. It is effectively the closing of clientelist ranks behind identarian reference points, which Balkans’ scholar Jasmin Mujanovic termed as “elastic authoritarianism”.
This also intersects with organised criminality, the Balkan form of which is as unique as it is embedded, having grown from the black economy that flourished during the wartime years. It was also a source of public revenue. The statehood of Montenegro arguably only became viable through organised crime. Similar interests continue to infiltrate state actors in the region, especially the Western Balkans, and informally influence the political economic consensus.
The Austrian variant
Austria does not have a legacy of homegrown organised criminality, but the architecture of the republic bears many parallels with its Balkan peers. The post-imperial “rump state” that was inherited in 1919 by three partisan camps – the Christian socials, the Socialists, and pan-German nationalists – was not anchored in any common sense of nationhood outside of the legal provisions of the constitution.
“The state that no one wanted” – as the Austrian historian Hellmut Andics called it – was therefore doomed to failure. Democracy was as good as dead on arrival, as the Christian socials quickly closed ranks with the pan-German nationalists to lock the Socialists out of power. Clericalist dictatorship followed in the 1930s but was unsustainable, as Nazi Germany sucked the brittle republic into its orbit, a development that was met with either ecstatic applause or weary resignation – and few tears shed, including on the left, where there was even some Schadenfreude over the fate of the Christian socials.
Austria’s confused flirtation with ethnic identity ended in disaster, which provided the foundation on which a viable state could be built. The three political camps – reformed as the ÖVP, SPÖ and (later) FPÖ – were able to unite around a concept of nationhood that was defined in opposition to totalitarianism, both Nazi and Soviet. Cohabitation was an acceptable compromise; but the political parties buried their hatchets in shallow graves, bad blood curdled by lingering resentments and suspicions. The politics of memory cast a long shadow, the presence of which went largely unspoken.
Much like in the Balkans, public posts, organisations, and enterprises were divvied up on every level, be it federal, regional or municipal, proportional to the electoral support of the parties. In Austrian parlance, this is known as Proporz (or otherwise as Protektion), which likewise informed the corporatist social partnership. Grand coalitions between the ÖVP and SPÖ were also the norm until 2000 (arguably 2017), barring the 1966-1986 period, when absolute majorities or alternative coalitions were possible. Again, this arrangement acted as a layer of oversight through which mistrustful political parties could keep tabs on each other, with institutional independence being traded for stability.
The parties were ideologically minded as opposed to ethnically or nationally, reflecting industrial class politics first and foremost. Yet sectarianism was present. The political camps established entire milieus which embodied worldviews that were often radically different, particularly with regards to social organisation as well as religion. The members of these milieus were commonly socialised within the same circles – such as fraternities, youth organisations as well as business and labour associations – and would rely on such connections as much as qualifications to advance their careers and generate opportunities.
Cosy, elitist networks were thus able to form and move behind the veneer of party politics to exert influence if not control over state agencies as well as enterprises. Their conduct was not necessarily corrupt, but it thrived on the blurred distinction between cynicism and illegality.
This did not preclude the tremendous development of Austria, economically and socially. Furthermore, the liberalisation and reform of Austria from the 1970/80s greatly strengthened institutional practices, with Proporz, for example, no longer playing the central role it did in state affairs. The political monopolies of the ÖVP and SPÖ were likewise eroded by the proliferation ecological, liberal, and nationalist movements, which increasingly captured their erstwhile voters. Yet old habits die hard.
Vorsprung durch Evolution
The fallout from the Ibizagate scandal shone a bright light on the techniques, old and new, through which political control and private enrichment are possible. They are not unique to the Balkans, but they are familiar.
Backdoor party donations that circumvent the Court of Audit; the tailoring of legislation to private interests; the appointment of unqualified party functionaries to executive boards of state enterprises; the allocation of state advertising budgets and subsidies to friendly media outlets, the amounts of which per capita are ten times that of Germany; the lack of transparency around the holdings of media owners; special administrative interventions by state actors for the benefit of corporate allies; the shoulder-rubbing and manoeuvring of party-linked networks in public administration, including in the justice and security sectors – when Kurz promised institutional reform through the ending of Freundlwirtschaft, it seems he really meant to reshape the power centre around himself and his allies at the expense of the SPÖ.
While Austria certainly cannot be described as a captured state, the jostling of informal networks for control of public resources is corroding its democratic development and inhibiting transparency.
Therefore, it is probably no coincidence that Austria is the last state in the European Union where public institutions are constitutionally bound to official secrecy. The reasons for Austrian stubbornness on this point are myriad but partly reflect the burial of the Nazi past after 1955 for the sake of social expediency – apart from when it periodically bubbled up or was otherwise instrumentalised for political ends.
And in a twist of poetic irony, the abolition of this provision is currently being pioneered by the Minister of Justice, Zadic, the first-generation Bosnian refugee. Albeit so far to little avail, as she tries to navigate the legislation through the political long grass.
The fragility of nationhood
That Austrian culture and history is deeply intertwined with that of the Balkans is not in doubt. The extent to which the Austrian heart is “Balkan” is less clear, given its historical status as a seat of imperial power as well as the sixty-five years of stability and prosperity that the country has enjoyed.
Yet the brittleness of its national identity is evident. As the historian Gerhard Jagschitz put it, “Austria is not a developed democracy. We have monarchist, nostalgist and authoritarian elements that feed in everywhere. Austria doesn’t care about its history – unless it’s about its marketing, which is all folklore. That creates a lot of space in which a lot of atrocities, including in contemporary debate, can emerge.”
If Jagschitz was correct, it perhaps provides an explanation for why Austria was a laboratory of modern populism already in the 1980s. Applied to the Balkans, the notion of elastic identities may likewise explain the troubles of the region. In both cases, the dysfunction of discourse provides cover for clientelist networks born out of a culture of opacity to exploit institutional ambiguities, if not capture the state.
In this sense, the Metternich refrain may well be taken to describe a universal problem.
Marcus How is the head of research & analysis at ViennEast Consulting in Vienna