Institutions and demotions: collective leadership in authoritarian regimes


Like any other regime, authoritarian regimes mutate. Many of these mutations depend upon the upshot of internecine elite conflicts. These condition the ability of a ruler or would-be ruler to seize state resources and acquire the capacity to exercise violence. It is therefore crucial to investigate the factors that shape the dynamics and outcomes of contention among elite groups in authoritarian regimes. This article pursues this line of investigation by examining from a micro-analytical, process-oriented, and phenomenological perspective how institutions of collective leadership affect power struggles in oligarchic power configurations. Drawing on the case of Serbia in the late 1980s, the following inquiry lays bare three institutional effects. First, collective organs of deliberation and decision-making channel intra-elite contention by defining the arenas in which elite members expect contention to take place (channeling effect). Second, by exacerbating actors’ mutual awareness and coordination dilemma, the forum setting of these collective organs lends itself to the emergence of open-ended situations (indeterminacy effect). Third, the verdicts delivered by institutions of collective leadership shape elite members’ expectations about group allegiance (collective alignment effect). In conjunction with this sequential argument about impact, the present article engages the conceptualization of authoritarian regimes, the analysis of institutional effects, and the study of delegitimation in an interactional setting.

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  1. 1.

    Labeling non-democratic regimes “authoritarian” seems analytically more appropriate than labeling them “dictatorships” since “dictatorship” connotes the existence of a dictator and therefore an autocratic power configuration characterized by the concentration of power in the hands of one man or one clique. As mentioned above, authoritarian regimes encompass contrasted power configurations.

  2. 2.

    Interviewee 9 describes Milošević as “carried away” by his April 1986 intervention at Kosovo Polje: “something happened down there … he came back as a charismatic person, a leader.” His stance resonated with lower ranking party officials (Interviewee 10; Jović 2008, p. 45). He was aware of this popularity (interviewee 9).

  3. 3.

    Following the event, the front page of Politika featured an article titled “Kelmendi fired into Yugoslavia” (Politika, September 4, 1987, p. 1). The article stated that Kelmendi “shot the most important pillar of Yugoslav unity and Yugoslav stability, the Yugoslav People’s Army, and the most sensitive part of its being, our youth that always carried its uniform with pride.” The continued coverage of the Paraćin case evolved into an investigation of the town from which Kelmendi came, which implicated all its Albanian inhabitants in the killings (“Road sign leads to Dušanovo,” Politika, September 7, 1987, p. 5). Meanwhile, the press also downplayed the Serbian riots that followed the event in which Albanian shops across Serbia were attacked (“Protest gathering because of the crime in Paraćin,” Politika, September 5, 1987, p. 5; on the press see Magaš 1993, pp. 109–110; Mertus 1999, pp. 145–154).

  4. 4.

    Svetislav Stojakov, “Prilog proučavanju ‘antibirokratske revolucije’ i ‘događanja naroda’,” p. 130. Stojakov was member of the Presidium.

  5. 5.

    Minović, Gojko i Pavle p. 310.

  6. 6.

    Transcript of the Thirtieth Session of the Presidium of the central committee of the League of Communists of Serbia, Centralni komitet Saveza komunista Predsjedništvo, 0300 Broj: Strogo pov. 290/1, Archives of Serbia, Belgrade, hereafter ‘Presidium transcript’, 7/3 BB, 7/5 BB, 20/5 BR, 23/4 BB, 58/2 TDJ, 43/3 BB. The pagination of the Presidium transcript available at the Archives of Serbia in Belgrade is peculiar: it uses a combination of letters and numbers. We use the original document's pagination to make any subsequent re-analysis possible.

  7. 7.

    The statement is by Borisav Jović, member of the central committee and the Presidium. At the time, Borisav Jović was a close associate of Milošević (Knjiga o Miloševiću, p. 36).

  8. 8.

    “I could not sleep last night” (Presidium transcript, 106/4 MB); Presidium transcript, 49/5 AZ.

  9. 9.

    Stambolić, Put u bespuće, p. 201.

  10. 10.

    “That is what everybody would like to believe now: they put a knife to my throat so I had to [vote this way] (Interview 1).

  11. 11.

    Svetislav Stojakov, “Prilog proučavanju ‘antibirokratske revolucije’ i ‘događanja naroda’,” p. 128.

  12. 12.

    One speaker exclaimed: “who is next?” (Presidium transcript 1/6 AZ). Another stated: “This is uncomfortable, as comrade Stambolić said, this form of confrontation, either you or us, the sinner versus the accusers. We have to build bridges of cooperation if there are differences, large or small. Without that, without unity and the capacity to act, we cannot fulfill any task” (Presidium transcript, 71/1 SS). Right after the Presidium meeting, Momčilo Baljak, member of the Presidium, more or less jokingly mentioned to Radovan Ristanović, member of the central committee: “I am sent to Siberia while they are preparing the firing squad for you” (reported in Pavić 2007, p. 22).

  13. 13.

    Stambolić, Put u bespuće, p. 197.

  14. 14.

    Milošević could rely on the support of some media editors (including the editor of Politika), the University Committee, where Milošević’s wife organized a group of allies, and a few affiliates who had openly sided with him regarding his more assertive approach to the Kosovo issue. Beyond this core of explicit supporters, the contours of the pro-Milošević’s camp were open to question. The same observation applies to Pavlović’s and Stambolić’s support within the party leadership.

  15. 15.

    One speaker observed: “there is nobody who can appear as the referee, outside of us. In earlier situations, this was comrade Tito” (Presidium transcript, 49/5 AZ).

  16. 16.

    Interviewee 2 remembers asking a Presidium colleague: “What should we do? … You and me were not made to pick corn. We have to finish this meeting and then Monday we start picking corn.”

  17. 17.

    Ivan Stambolić, Put u bespuće, p. 189. Minović, Gojko i Pavle, p. 310. Ivan Minović at the time was an ally of Milošević.

  18. 18.

    Milošević called for a vote with the following statement: “we should … agree on the motion that comrade Dragiša Pavlović be removed from his position. I suggest that the Presidium votes. We have the right to suggest that he be discharged from the Presidium of the central committee” (Presidium transcript, 128/3 AZ)

  19. 19.

    Presidium transcript, 2/4 TDJ.

  20. 20.

    Stambolić, Put u bespuće, p. 252.

  21. 21.

    Nikola Ljubičić is mentioned by interviews 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, Dušan Čkrebić by interviews 2, 3, 5, 6, 7, 8, 10, and Petar Gračanin by interviews 1, 2, 3, 5, 8. Two interviewees also mentioned Dobrivoje Vidić (Interviews 5, 10).

  22. 22.

    Ivan Stambolić, Put u bespuće, pp. 198–199.

  23. 23.

    “I have been elected to the central committee of the League of Communists of Serbia as a delegate of the Belgrade party organization and since the matter involves the president of the City Committee of the League of Communists of Belgrade, I would like to inform you of my position that I will take at the Presidium of the central committee (Text of the letter reproduced in the transcript of the Presidium meeting, 95/3 SS, September 19, 1987).

  24. 24.

    Ivan Stambolić, Put u bespuće, p. 201; Živorad Minović, Gojko i Pavle, p. 312.

  25. 25.

    “We know that every play, however mediocre, has its ‘climax’ that provides the plot with its resolution. This time the main actors were replaced by letters, by the will and the imagination of an author unknown to me” (Dragiša Pavlović, Olako obećana brzina, p. 149).

  26. 26.

    Živorad Minović, Gojko i Pavle, p. 312.

  27. 27.

    Interviewees 3 and 5, who both opposed Milošević, make this diagnosis. For interviewee 3, Stambolić’s political position was stronger than Milošević’s before the confrontation. Interviewee 5 indicates a shift in allegiance among cadres who “were actually Stambolić’s people.”

  28. 28.

    The repercussion of the letter episode on the dynamic of the meeting is consistent with the theory of public statements’ impact in conjunctures of coordination dilemma and mutual uncertainty (Ermakoff 2008, chapter 6). Actors facing a coordination dimension have a strategic incentive to read the public statements of their prominent peers as “revealing” the group stance when these prominent peers are commonly perceived as “mainstream” in terms of political orientations. Public statements in these conditions operate as a device for tacit alignment.

  29. 29.

    “The presidium meeting was more important than the eighth session, because [at the Presidium meeting] the battle was still undecided “(Svetislav Stojakov, “Prilog proučavanju ‘antibirokratske revolucije’ i ‘događanja naroda’,” p. 128).

  30. 30.

    Pavić, Olako shvaćena silina, p. 24. Interviewee 3 indicates that central committee members were constantly leaving the auditorium in order to smoke outside.

  31. 31.

    Stambolić concurs with this assessment: the eighth central committee was no different from the Presidium meeting with regard to the eagerness to align with the majority (Ivan Stambolić, Put u bespuće, p. 201).

  32. 32.

    Vasa Milinčević: “the real topic of today’s conversation should be the method and style of work of the Presidium and its president [Milošević];” Ljubinka Trgovčević: “does the Presidium believe that … instead of our current party it wants an authoritarian party?” (transcript of the eighth central committee reproduced in Slaviša Lekić and Zoran Pavić (eds.), 2007. VIII Sednica CK SK Srbije, p. 184, p. 192).

  33. 33.

    Minović offers a consonant assessment: there was “more maneuvering with endless rhetorical tirades” at the Presidium meeting than at the central committee meeting (Minović, Gojko i Pavle, p. 310).

  34. 34.

    Transcript of the eighth central committee reproduced in Slaviša Lekić and Zoran Pavić (eds.), 2007. VIII Sednica CK SK Srbije, p. 259.

  35. 35.

    Statement by Misha Glenny, former BBC Central Europe correspondent: Saturday, 16 February 2002, BBC News for the opening of Milošević’s trial in The Hague.

  36. 36.

    Borisav Jović, at the time a very close associate of Milošević (Jović, Knjiga o Miloševiću, p. 31).

  37. 37.

    Jović, Knjiga o Miloševiću, p. 31.

  38. 38.

    Pavić, Olako shvaćena silina, p. 25

  39. 39.

    For the sake of clarity, a distinction should be drawn between “delegitimization” (i.e., the willful attempt to undermine an incumbent’s claim to legitimacy) and “delegitimation” (i.e., the loss of legitimacy). Delegitimization describes the strategy pursued by a challenger vis-à-vis an incumbent. Delegitimation is the end-result of this strategy regarding the incumbent’s status. The delegitimation of political and business leaders can result from various processes: seemingly intractable policy challenges (Linz 1978, pp. 53–55), the systematic discrepancy between words and actions (Przeworski 1991, pp. 2–3), fraudulent institutional practices (Goodwin 2001, p. 178), external normative challenges (Yaziji 2005, pp. 89–91), and internal challenges (this article). That is, delegitimization is only one opus operandi of delegitimation.

  40. 40.

    “A power is legitimate to the degree that, by virtue of the doctrines and norms by which it is justified, the power-older can call upon sufficient other centers of power, as reserves in the case of need, to make his power effective” (Stinchcombe 1968, p. 162).

  41. 41.

    On the relationship between elite circulation and policy changes, see Bunce (1981, pp. 161–162).

  42. 42.

    The transcript of the Eighth session of the central committee of the League of Communists of Serbia is also available in: Osma sednica Centralnog komiteta Saveza komunista Srbije, Belgrade: Komunist [The Eighth Session of the central committee of the League of Communists of Serbia] (1987).


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Previous versions of this article were presented at the London School of Economics, the European University Institute in Florence and the Social Science Division at NYU-Abu Dhabi. We thank the three reviewers and the editorial board of Theory and Society for their helpful comments.

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Appendix 1: Interviews

One of the authors conducted ten semi-structured interviews with members of the central committee: seven interviewees attended both the Presidium and the central committee meetings, three attended the central committee meeting only. We asked interviewees to describe the political context, their understanding of the stakes, their perception of the Presidium and the central committee meetings, their thinking and state of mind as the meeting proceeded, and the factors that influenced their voting decision. No question referred to political developments subsequent to Milošević’s takeover. Six interviewees (1, 2, 7, 8, 9, 10) took a stance against Pavlović (i.e., for Milošević’s motion) while four opposed Milošević (Interviewees 3, 4, 5, 6). Interviews were recorded, except in three cases when the interviewees did not provide consent. For these three interviews, the author conducting the interview took notes. All interviews took place in November and December of 2012. Since several interviewees asked to remain anonymous, we have decided to preserve the anonymity of all.

Appendix 2: Coding of statements

The Presidium meeting took place over two days: the transcript of the meeting reports 172 statements: 76 on the first day and 96 on the second day. By “statement,” we mean a verbal occurrence by a speaker identifiable by his or her name. Among these 172 statements, 62 were by the three main protagonists (Pavlović, Stambolić, and Milošević): 26 on the first day, 36 on the second day. Not all the 110 remaining statements were substantive. Many (n = 52) were procedural or too short to stand as substantive statements that participants would have interpreted as such. Among the 58 substantive statements delivered at the meeting, we collapsed two contiguous ones that amounted to the expression of the same stance. The sequence we are considering thus comprises 57 substantive statements: 29 on the first say and 28 on the second day. The same procedure yielded 88 “substantive” statements (not delivered by the main protagonists) at the eighth central committee meeting.

We coded substantive statements by examining whether they conveyed a definite stance or not (“committed” versus “uncommitted” statements) and, in the case of committed statements, whether these signaled support for Pavlović or for Milošević. Statements signaling support for Pavlović took various forms: some praised his deeds; others criticized Milošević; still others called into question the trial to which he was being subjected. For instance: “I repeat, for me, Pavlović [is] a man who showed quite a lot of courage in saying a few things against Serbian nationalism. It is not easy today, especially publicly, to win popularity if you talk about Serbian nationalism, even if you only confront it with words” (Presidium transcript, 83/6 BM).

Statements endorsing Milošević depicted Pavlović as unfit for his position or took issue with the latter’s public criticism of the media and, implicitly, of Milošević. For instance: “I think comrade Milošević has the right to call for work speed, and efficiency in solving problems in general and in solving problems connected to the implementation of decisions made by our League of Communists in Kosovo. I think that from this perspective comrade Pavlović made a mistake or that his formulation was unfortunate” (Presidium transcript, 11/1 MB).

Uncommitted statements typically shunned the meeting agenda, rambled on various topics and, in so doing, made it impossible to figure out where the speaker stood regarding Milošević’s request that Pavlović be sanctioned. For instance: “One may have thought that anything was possible, but few among us could have imagined that we would be in a situation leading us to talk like this, especially in a situation as difficult as the one we have now. Along with inflation, economic losses, low wages, a drop in production, the slow resolution of problems in Kosovo, I have to repeat that some elements complicate our current situation” (Presidium transcript, 9/4 AZ).

Appendix 3: Coding of affiliations

As Đukić (1992, p. 158) remarks, members of Serbian elite circles in the 1980s had a clear sense of who was politically involved with whom. We assessed whether participants in the Presidium and the central committee meetings were commonly viewed as affiliated with either Milošević or Stambolić in light of the information provided by interviewees, scholarly accounts (Jović 2003; 2007; Magaš 1993; Vladisavljević 2008), politicians’ memoirs (Dušan Čkrebić, Borisav Jović, Živorad Minović, Dragiša Pavlović, Ivan Stambolić), as well as insiders’ and journalists’ reports (Đukić 1992, 2007; Djukić 2001; LeBor 2004; Pavić 2007; Sell 2002; Silber and Little 1997). For instance, Đukić (1992) characterizes Borisav Jović as follows: “In Jović, Milošević had his most capable associate, a supporter of his view of politics characterized by hostility and conspicuous self-confidence” (p. 164).



Centralni komitet Saveza komunista Predsjedništvo 0300 Broj: Strogo pov. 290/1. Neautorizovane magnetofonske beleške sa Tridesete sednice Predsedništva Centralnog komiteta Saveza komunista Srbije Beograd, 18. Septembar 1987. [central committee of the League of Communists of Serbia Presidium 0300 Number: Highly confidential 290/1. Unauthorized transcript from tape-recorder from the Thirtieth session of the Presidium of the central committee of the League of Communists of Serbia, Belgrade, September 18, 1987], located at the Archives of Serbia (Arhiv Srbije) in Belgrade (Železnik).

Lekić, Slaviša and Zoran Pavić (eds.). 2007. VIII Sednica CK SK Srbije: Nulta tačka “narodnog pokreta. Belgrade: Službeni Glasnik. [Eighth Session of the central committee of the League of Communists of Serbia: The Starting Point of the “National Movement”].Footnote 42

Uroš Šuraković (ed.). 2009. Osma sednica CK SKS: Dvadeset godina posle: zbornik sa istoimenog naučnog skupa održanog u Beogradu, Centar “Sava”, 24. Septembra 2007 [The Eighth Meeting of the central committee of the League of Communists of Serbia: Edited Volume from the Eponymous Scientific Meeting held in Belgrade, Centar “Sava”, 24th of September 2007]. Belgrade & Kovin: Smisao & Sloboda.

Personal accounts and memoirs

Čkrebić, Dušan. Život, politika, komentar [Life, Politics, Commentary]. Belgrade: Službeni glasnik, 2008.

Jović, Borisav. Knjiga o Miloševiću [A Book About Milošević]. Belgrade: IKP Nikola Paši, 2001.

Minović, Živorad. Gojko i Pavle: Istorija izvesnih i neočekivanih uzroka Osme sednice [Gojko and Pavle: The History of the Certain and Expected Causes of the Eighth Session]. Belgrade: Printmedia, 2007.

Pavić, Zoran. “Olako shvaćena silina” in Slaviša Lekić and Zoran Pavić (eds.), VIII Sednica CK SK Srbije: Nulta tačka “narodnog pokreta” [Eighth Meeting of the central committee of the League of Communists of Serbia: The Starting Point of the “National Movement”], Službeni Glasnik, Beograd, 11–27, 2007.

Pavlović, Dragiša. Olako obećana brzina [Quick Change, Easily Promised]. Belgrade: Globus, 1988.

Stambolić, Ivan. Put u bespuće [The Path to the Abyss]. Belgrade: Radio B92, 1995.

Stojakov, Svetislav. “Prilog proučavanju ‘antibirokratske revolucije’ i ‘događanja naroda’” pp. 115–154 in Slobodan Budakov (ed.), Jogurt revolucija 1988: Vojvodina od ustava do statuta, Vojvođanski klub, Novi Sad, 2009.


Politika, various articles, September 1987. References provided in footnotes.

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Ermakoff, I., Grdesic, M. Institutions and demotions: collective leadership in authoritarian regimes. Theor Soc 48, 559–587 (2019).

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  • Authoritarian regimes
  • Collective alignments
  • Elites
  • Institutional effects
  • Legitimacy
  • Serbia