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Branko Milanović’s Chinese Syndrome

A good political assessment is not a discipline in which the respected economist Branko Milanović should compete, and it is a pity that he persistently deals with it from time to time. For example, back in 2007, just months before the collapse of Kosovo negotiations in Vienna, he firmly sided with “part of Koštunica’s government”, because, as he said, “they raised their voice and told Western officials more sharply what to expect in the event of unilateral recognition of Kosovo independence”.

Let’s go back to that time for a moment. The Serbian government, its prime minister and his advisers, are holding the newly adopted Constitution in their hands and do not want to talk about anything with Martti Ahtisaari, let alone with the people from Pristina. When they are asked – What don’t you want, they answer – For Kosovo to be independent. And when they are asked – What do you want, they say – That Kosovo is not independent. A firm policy, apart from not bringing any results, more precisely, brings a catastrophic result. That result was visible to the naked eye at the moment when Milanović wrote this and defended “part of Koštunica’s government”, because it knows how to give piece of their mind to the Western powers and tell them “what they can expect” if they recognize Kosovo. He is one of the few who did not notice this impending catastrophe and not only that, but he went a step further. He took for granted the threat of “part of Koštunica’s government” to the West, and strongly supported it as “an obligation to clearly present to others (the West) the consequences of their choice”. And what happened a few months later? Negotiations failed, Kosovo declared independence, the entire West recognized that independence, and what was the response of Koštunica’s government – demonstrations, shattered Belgrade, looted shops, burned embassies. And there was also the urgent departure of the head of state (Tadić) to Romania, probably in order not to attend this strong response to the West; the response from which Serbia is still recovering, 14 years later.

These days, Branko Milanović had an equally unsuccessful effort to predict the course of political events, now on a global level. Entitled “The Summit for Democracy – a wrong idea (for the world)”, he posted on his blog what he thought of Joseph Biden’s online meeting with more than 100 world leaders dedicated to the crisis of today’s world democracy and possible ways to resolve it. Milanović wrote about it a few days before the summit, not waiting to hear the speakers, doing the same as the critics over the unread book. What he thinks about Biden’s summit is quite well summed up in the title of the blog, but even better in the statement of the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs that American democracy is “a weapon of mass destruction”. Milanović’s views are, of course, his personal views and have nothing to do with the views of official Chinese diplomacy, although the Chinese were somewhat more correct in this case, because they at least waited for the Summit to end and say something about it. However, there is an impression that Milanović’s criticism of Biden’s summit and the official Chinese reaction completely coincide in their main assessment. And that is that American democracy is dangerous for the world, or as Milanović specifies – the Summit leads in the direction where conflict is inevitable. For this conflict, he says, America is gathering “an unwieldy association of states” that it will lead in its “ideological crusade in the escalating geopolitical conflict with China and Russia”. Strong words that are worthy of being recognized as an academic upgrade to China’s statement on American democracy as a “weapon of mass destruction”. Milanović labels Biden’s initiative as the “crusade”, as an ideologically extreme historical example, at a time when the West is the only part of the world where religious and all other differences are possible. And not only is it possible, but it is woven into the foundation of their societies as a “must have”. Not only people of all possible religions go there, fleeing from misery and intolerance at home, but also Russian and Chinese money, capital, students, looking for the best for themselves and their future. They are fleeing to the same democracy that Milanović (and China) is attacking because it threatens the world, just because it wants to consolidate and improve. Because it is endangered and eroded by those whom Milanović takes under his protection and warns that Biden and his “crusaders” are threatening them.

How hypocritical should one be, to describe, in this context, China only as a “technocratic system” and not a word more? It is as if impersonal managers are sitting in power in Beijing, looking at tables and looking for the best options for their people and peace in the world, and not communist apparatchiks whose repressive regime keeps a billion and a half people under its boot, and some in concentration camps. While a few hundred from that most corrupt elite in the history of the world are at the top of the lists of the biggest billionaires on the planet. Milanović deals with the problem of inequality in a globalized world, remember? It is impossible that Branko Milanović accidentally missed. It is impossible that he did not hear Joe Biden just a few months ago, when he said during the withdrawal from Afghanistan that his country, and especially his army, will no longer deal with “forcing” democracy where people do not want it. It is impossible that he did not connect that historical turning point in American politics with the Summit for Democracy that he wrote about. It is impossible that in a recent online meeting of hundreds of world leaders, he did not recognize the new American strategy to “force” democracy not by aircraft carriers, but by dialogue with those who care about democracy. These are certainly not Russian and Chinese leaders, and that is why Biden did not invite them.

Milanović missed on purpose. It is his sincere attitude towards Western, liberal democracy and its values, only in the bosom of which could he express his potential and become one of the world’s most influential economists. Had he grown up in the Chinese or Russian “technocracy” he worries about today because of democratic invasion, he would have been just one of the nameless screws in making historic five-year plans, if he were alive at all.

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