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Is de-democratization the future of Central and Eastern Europe? (2017)
Given the region’s history, it is tempting to describe these troubling trends as the symptom of incomplete postcommunist democratization and the return of nationalist ghosts from the past
On April 4th, the Hungarian parliament approved legislation that, if implemented, would directly impede the operation of Central European University (CEU), one of Central and Eastern Europe’s top academic institutions. The move drew an expected uproar from academic communities in Europe and the United States and sparked a movement inside Hungary to defend the university. Many critics have argued that what is transpiring in Hungary is an effort by the government of Viktor Orbán to undermine an independent academic institution in ways that are consistent with the pattern of attacks against democratic institutions and civil liberties he and his Fidesz party have been carrying out since their coming to power in 2010.
Are Hungarian trends indicative of a broader movement towards de-democratization in Central and Eastern Europe? I use de-democratization here in Charles Tilly’s (2007) general understanding as a process by which governmental policy and decision-making is increasingly less bound by binding consultation with citizenries, and governmental subjects are increasingly less protected from arbitrary action from governmental agents. Indeed, the question is important not only from a normative concern for civil liberties and democracy. In the reigning theories of postcommunist democratization, Hungary was often championed as one of the region’s great success stories. These theories are at a loss for explaining, yet alone having foreseen or predicted, recent trends in the region.
Freedom House, which tracks political developments in each country, shows that since 2007, democracy scores in the region have remained relatively steady, though in addition to Hungary, Poland, Bulgaria, and Slovakia have also seen declining scores (see chart). Others, like Czech Republic and Slovenia, have experienced slight declines. Hungary, however, has been the only country in the region to have its regime status downgraded by Freedom House, from a “consolidated democracy” to a “semi-consolidated democracy.” More recently, troubling developments have taken place in Poland, another one-time leader in postcommunist democratization. Under the current ruling Law and Justice party (PiS), Poland has also seen policies undercutting independent institutions and efforts to undermine and discredit opposition and civil society.
Another concerning development is the apparent rise of right-wing extremism in the region, with racist, xenophobic, and homophobic positions sometimes espoused by mainstream politicians. Freedom House notes the rise of violent extremism in the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Bulgaria, in particular the emergence of vigilante groups attacking Middle Eastern and North African refugees who transit through these countries to seek refuge in Germany and other affluent economies. Both the Czech president Miloš Zeman and the Slovak prime minister Robert Fico have made statements deriding Muslims and have vituperated against the European Union (EU) for its efforts to admit more refugees. In sending such messages of xenophobia and Islamophobia, they have joined in unison with the choir of the populist-nationalist right in Europe. Some countries in the region have seen the rise of a new generation of xenophobic and ethnonationalist parties, including Jobbik in Hungary, Kotleba in Slovakia, and Ataka (Attack) and the National Front for the Salvation in Bulgaria, all of which have garnered seats in their respective national parliaments.
Given the region’s history, it is tempting to describe these troubling trends as the symptom of incomplete postcommunist democratization and the return of nationalist ghosts from the past. The trends, however, cannot be interpreted outside of the context of the political and economic crisis that has afflicted the entire EU, marked economically by punishing austerity policies and politically by the rise of xenophobia and right-wing populism across the continent. In Central and Eastern Europe, neoliberal globalization has taken place under the guise of the postcommunist “transition to the market,” but in reality performed through the region’s rapid incorporation into FDI-driven transnational production and financial networks. The benefits of this transformation have been highly uneven both cross-regionally and domestically, leading to a sense of disempowerment and anger among those who find themselves on the losing end of the long postcommunist political and economic transformation. Given the newness of democracy itself, such publics are more likely to associate perceived social and economic ills with malfunctions of democracy itself. As early as 2012, the European Social Survey found 13 percent of respondents in northwest Europe dissatisfied with the way democracy works in their country, while in Central and Eastern Europe this number stood at 32 percent.
Finding scapegoats to blame for the new insecurities of neoliberal globalization is the speciality of ethnonationalist parties who fill the void left by a sclerotic EU and the political ineptitude and unimaginativeness of mainstream parties who for a long time saw their chief task to be doing the local bidding for Brussels. In Central and Eastern Europe, such scapegoats abound: from imaginary existential threats from Islam and/or refugees, to local corrupt politicians, ex-Communist apparatchiks, former spies and informants of the secret police, the liberal and cosmopolitan intelligentsia (such as those housed by institutions like Budapest’s CEU), and civil society, particularly organizations supporting women’s reproductive rights and advocating for the LGBTQ community. These alleged malefactors are all out to steal the nation’s wealth, surrender its sovereignty, and destroy its traditional values and morality. Curiously enough, such symbolic attacks typically spare large transnational corporations, who do indeed own and control much of the region’s productive capital. Even Hungary’s Orbán has taken great strides to ensure that his rhetoric and policies do not offend the German, Dutch, American, South Korean, and other foreign companies that make up the most important sectors of Hungary’s economy. Orbán may be ahead of the curve in forging a new nationalist-authoritarian accommodation with neoliberal globalization that may offer a model for others to follow, but the elements of this new political-economic structure are yet to fully coalesce, and are still not adequately understood.
This is not to paint an overly grim and pessimistic image of political trends in Central and Eastern Europe. The threats of a deepening trend of de-democratization are real, but the outcome is not inevitable nor the trend irreversible. As the protest wave sparked by the attack against CEU demonstrated, responses to, and resistance against, both de-democratization and illiberal politics have emerged. Last October, a massive, women-led protest wave in Poland forced the PiS government to rescind a proposed measure to ban abortion. In the Czech Republic organizations supporting refugees have fended against popular stigma and even violence from right-wing extremists to support and aid refugees. In Slovenia, a new radical left movement, the United Left, successfully competed in parliamentary elections, garnering as many votes as the mainstream Social Democrats. In recent months Hungary has seen a proliferation of new liberal and left parties seeking to challenge Fidesz and shake up Hungary’s party system in the 2018 elections. Many other such examples can be found across the region.
The potential for solidarity and progressive change is there. Yet in the wider view, the region’s fate, both economic and political, is deeply tied to the fate of Europe as a whole. As much as a shadow of its variegated authoritarian pasts, Central and Eastern Europe is both subject and party to efforts aiming to remake Europe’s political economy and place the EU project on a new, more inclusionary footing. However, should these efforts ultimately fail, and Europe remain in the thralls of austerity, low growth, and in the continuing grip of political sclerosis, the echoes of de-democratization and illiberal politics will likely be felt beyond the hallowed halls of Budapest’s CEU to universities, parliaments, cabinets, and courthouses throughout the region.
(Published in Trajectories, Newsletter of the Comparative and Historical Sociology Section of the American Sociological Association, Vol. 28, No. 3 (Spring 2017), pp. 7-9.)
Tilly, Charles. 2007. Democracy. New York: Cambridge University Press.