Something rotten in the state of Czechia?

By Blog Admin, on 3 May 2016

klima coverThe Czech Republic has been in the news recently because of its politicians’ somewhat quixotic campaign to rebrand the country to the world as ‘Czechia’. But among political scientists and businesspeople the country’s name has long suffered worst damage than this.

Widely seen in the first decade after 1989 a leading democratiser with high standards of governance overseen by a well-established set of West European-style political parties, the country has since acquired a reputation for engrained political graft and high level corruption, which blemished its record of reform and modernisation.

In successive elections in 2010 and 2013, the established Czech party system collapsed like a house of cards as – as elsewhere in Central and Eastern Europe – voters turned to a diverse array of protest parties promising to address the country’s ills by killing off political dinosaurs, fighting corruption and promoting the direct democracy. Political scientists quickly clocked thiselectoral turbulence and the unusual new parties it gave rise to, but few stopped to wonder why and how earlier judgements of the Czech party system as an ersatz, but basically functional, equivalent of West European party politics had been off the mark.

Michal Klíma’s  new book Od totality k defektní demokracii: Privatizace a kolonizace politických stran netransparentním byznysem [From totalitarianism to defective democracy: the privatisation and colonisation of parties by non-transparent business] tackles this issue head-on, suggesting that rather than being a normal party system distorted by elements of corruption, the Czech Republic’s post-1989 party-political settlement was a deeply corrupt system overlaid with a facade of left – right competition. His book sets out to chronicle and explore how and why this evolved, drawing on the rich seam of Czech investigative journalism and focusing on the two principal pillars of post-1989 party system: the centre-right Civic Democratic Party (ODS) and the Czech Social Democrats (ČSSD ).

Regional ‘godfathers


Photo:  author

By far the book’s most impressive achievement is its careful reconstruction of the subversion and takeover of parties and party organisations at the regional level by ‘godfathers’ (kmotři). Far from providing an impetus for political and economic development, EU-mandated regionalisation and the coming on stream of structural funds, managed by regional agencies and spent by regional authorities, triggered the takeover of party organisations by corrupt vested interests. Their usual modus operandi was the recruitment of fake or paid for party members (in Czech political parlance so-called ‘dead souls’) which allowed the capture of first local local and then regional party organisations and often opened up the way to national influence.


But the ‘provincial godfathers’ who brokered or bankrolled corrupt deals – typically owners of regional building, transport or security firms – were small fry compared to bigger national players who had made fortunes in the privatisations of the 1990s and their aftermath exploited the opportunities offered by state-owned companies such as the electricity giant ČEZ . These bigger economic and political operators exercised influence on parties and politicians more directly at national level through the corrupt   ‘lobbying’ (lobbování – the Czech word carries powerful overtones of sleaze – of politicians. This completed the second arm of a pincer movement on parties, hollowing them out and taking over both from above as well as below.

The upshot Klíma concludes is that the Czech Republic’s much vaunted ‘standard’ model of party politics was – or quickly degenerated into – a Potemkin village where  parties failed to fulfil the basic function of representing voters and formulating some vision of the public interest. They became instead tools of corrupt business groups.

Indeed, he suggests, this process had gone so far that these corrupted pesudo-parties were in reality a form of ‘anti-system’ parties, as threatening  to liberal democracy in their own wayas the ideologically extremist parties for whom this label is usually reserved. This wasparticularly the case given the ability of informal networks to use their control of parties and politicians to disable or capture enforcement and monitoring institutions, such as  the police, prosecutors and judiciary.

In sum, Klíma concludes Czechia ended up with a ‘clientelistic democracy’ where ‘although at first glance [there was ] a democratically elected representative government, in reality the country was managed by an opaque grey zone of shady business and politics’.  So fatally has the influence of corrupt business groups damaged the role of law and negated democratic choice, he argues, that the country qualifies as whatGerman political scientist Wolfgang Merkel termed a ‘defective democracy’, and more specifically,  as a form of ‘illiberal democracy’.

klima zeman

Photo: David Sedlecký CC BY-SA-3.0

The most interesting question posed by Klíma, however, is about will happen, rather than what has happened: whether such a hollow, captured and corrupt party-political mainstream is preparing the way for some form of full-blooded illiberalism and authoritarianism. There are some signs that it might. Few observers could have missed the brutal power-seeking logic of Czechia’s first directly elected president, Miloš Zeman, efforts to bend the constitution by imposing a technocrat government over the heads of the country’s political parties in 2013. Zeman’s plans were thwarted when parties managed to unite sufficiently to call early elections. But a more sure footed or luckier politician  might have got away with an extended period of de facto presidential government.


The billionaire populist (and current Finance minister) Andrej Babiš , whose ANO movement came from nowhere to become the country’s second biggest party in 2103, is another plausible-looking candidate to put Czechia on the road to democratic backsliding. He has electoral momentum and the unparalleled concentration of political, economic and media power in Mr Babiš’s hands makes the labyrinthine informal networks of the ‘regional godfathers’ seem feeble in comparison.

Dirty money and shady business

 Od totality k defektní demokraciii is a fascinating, thought-provoking and groundbreaking study, which would certainly merit publication in English. It is possibly the first full length work on Czech party politics to foreground and ask directly the question of how informal structures affect formal party politics, rather than relegating it to incidental remarks.

However, its thorough analysis of the enmeshing of formal representative institutions and informal socio-economic power structures sometimes begs more questions than it answers. Two issues in particular stand out.


Photo: author

The first is the question of wherethe money corruptly raked off in bribes, kickbacks and inflated rigged tenders goes. In many of the cases details it seems to go straight into the pockets of politicians and businessmen themselves, financing luxurious lifestyle, implausible personal fortunes and hard-to-explain property empires. Much less clear is if and how political parties take their cut – in other words, whether corruption feeds an electoral and political arms race driven by the politicians’ to fight  expensive election campaigns, or is simply about well-placed individuals and groups exploiting democratic politics for personal enrichment?

The second is the issue of who or what is pulling the strings and eating into party structures. The book refers throughout to the sphere of ‘nontransparent’ (netransparentní) business and businesspeople.  However, in the end we learn little about the nature of these economic actors and how they fit into the wider political economy of the Czech Republic – beyond the fact that some have links to the criminal underworld or made earlier ‘careers’ in the late communist period as black market hard currency dealers (veksláci). Both these points underline that political- or economic sociology, rather than just political science may be needed to understand some of the strange transformations Czech parties have undergone.


Clientelism vs. klientelismus

The book also offers a number of innovative comparative and theoretical ideas, often adapting the literature on models of democracy and party organisation to map uncharted territory of informal power. But here is often less sure footed and less convincing than it might be. It is doubtful, for example,  that developments in the Czech case really merit the elaboration of another new party type (‘the clientelistic party model’) in a field already overflowing with (often overlapping) models and typologies.

Klima cssd

Photo: Kychot CC BY-SA-3.0

The idea that corrupted, hollowed out parties can be seen as a new form of anti-system party is provocative, but ultimately seems an exercise in concept stretching: the problem seems more that hollow corrupt parties have constituted the core of a flawed and dysfunctional democratic system rather than a threat to it. If corrupt vested interest and ‘non-transparent business’ are, as Klíma suggests at one point, parasitical on the democratic process, then like all good parasites they need to be careful not to kill their host.



Problematic too is that the book seemingly takes over the Czech journalistic notion of klientelismus as a loose umbrella term covering all manner of legal and illegal informal practices ranging from patronage and influence-peddling to forms of political corruption. In the political science literature however, ‘clientelism’ is more usually understood more narrowly as politicians trading favours and ‘selective benefits’ to groups or individuals in exchange for electoral or political support – sometimes (historically) via extensive many-layered patron-client networks reaching down from elite level to the grassroots.


Photo: Kychot CC BY-SA-3.0

While the trading of blocs of votes in hollowed out party organisations Klíma describes probably would qualify as clientelistic, much of the klientelismusreported seem in fact to be straightforward corrupt exchanges between businessmen and politicians. Moreover, as the book makes clear, most Czechs who cast votes do on the basis of broad general assessments of what parties will do – viewed in terms of personal self-interest or some notion of the wider public good – and not in the expectation that they, their families or communities will get some direct direct pay-off in return in the form of jobs, spending or political favours.

Instead, Klíma suggests, corrupt politics has changed the party – voter relationship in a different way: the emergence of new anti-corruption parties in successive Czech elections, he argues, heralds a shift away from patterns of left-right voting to one where voters assess parties on the basis of their (perceived) corruption, competence and cleanness.

This is an intriguing and plausible idea, but one that perhaps runs ahead of available evidence. It is hard to rule out whether the volatility of Czechia’s 2010 and 2013 elections is simply a prelude to a remaking of the party system along familiar lines with one time hard-to-place. anti-establishment outsiders quickly slotting in to familiar ideological roles – as has occurred in Poland and Slovakia.

 Where did it all go wrong?

 When and why did the Czech experiment with building ‘standard’ West European-style parties go wrong? Klíma offers four basic  explanations: 1) the weakness and lack of autonomy political institutions given the baleful legacy of communism; 2) the weakness of civil society and the middle class as potential checks on political power; 3)  the poor quality and lack of ‘political culture’ of the political class and 4) the tendency of the two main parties, the Civic Democrats (ODS) and Social Democrats (ČSSD) to collude, rather than compete, especially ollowing the  1998-2002 ‘Opposition Agreement’ pact they signed to allow a minority Social Democrat administration to take office, which also ushered in in an era of ODS-ČSSD Grand Coalitions at regional and city level.

ODS budka

Photo: Fredy.00 Public domain

The first two points are textbook descriptions of post-communist politics and societies across Central and Eastern Europe. However, in the Czech context they pose the question of whether the country’s democratic traditions and legacies of bureaucratic autonomy handed down from the pre-communist really counted as much. Was there in hindsight a certain inevitability about the implosion of seemingly consolidated parties of 1990s?

Deficiences of elite ‘political culture’ is a concern frequently voiced by Czech writers. For outside obsververs it is a judgement that can seem  pat and superficial. Anyone dipping into coverage of  politics Australian orIrish style will find yobbery and unparliamentary language galore in these long established and success democracies  which make the sedate and plodding Czech parliament look like a vicar’s tea party.  But at a deeper level the usual Czech worries over ‘political culture’ taps into a concern – heightened by recent developments in Hungary and Poland – that, unpoliced and given the opportunity to do so, many inCentral and Eastern Europe’s political class will not only steal, but will sign up to a illiberal projects if one comes along. In other words, that they are, to use the jargon, potentially ‘disloyal elites’.

The final fourth point  relating to the Opposition Agreement is different in being both Czech-specific and in putting blame for democratic malaise less on a failure to overcome history and legacies of the communist past, than on the dynamics of later party competition and the bad calls made by politicians in 1990s. The ill-considered and cynical  pact between the Civic Democrats and Social Democrats it is argued – although partly rooted in the difficulties of coalition building given the parliamentary presence of the ‘uncoalitionable’ Communist Party – shut down political competition between the two main parties, giving the green light to corrupt mutual self-enrichment and leading to a ‘parcelling out’ of state agencies and companies between them.

klima 2This interpretation echoes both journalistic  accounts of the period and academic research, which sees  ‘state exploitation’ by Czech parties as stemming from a lack of ‘robust competition’ between them. However, it is not uncontested view. Lubomír Kopeček’s meticulously researched book on the Opposition Agreement, for example, takes issue with the idea that it was a cartel-like ‘hidden grand coalition’, which tipped the country into a form of corrupt illiberal democracy.

Far from cementing a mutually beneficial oligopoly, he claims, after the two parties’ joint project to introduce a majoritarian electoral system were torpedoed by the Constitutional Court, they  were often at each other’s throats.  Moreover, Kopeček also questions what he terms the ‘corruption myth’  seeing Opposition Agreement as the font of subsequent corrupt politics. While allowing that the Agreement saw a certain ‘economisation of politics’ (including the rise of ‘regional ‘godfathers’) in his view the pact merely exacerbated already well established trends.

Opportunities for corruption were opened up, Kopeček suggests, not by inter-party collusion by ‘captured’ parties by the changes wrought by EU-mandated regionalisation (which took effect in 2000-2) and the coming on stream of EU structural funds (which would have occurred under any government). In this interpretation, it is the collison between party politics and Europeanisation, as well parties’ inability to manage a shifting economic landscape, that left them vulnerable to corruption.

 What is to be done?

klima 7

Photo Jan Kameníček CC BY SA 4.0

In the final chapter Klíma sketches a broad agenda for reform designed to renew Czech democracy and rescue the necessary instituitions of political party,  that might be introduced through a Czech ‘Constitutional Convention’.


Formal institutions of state including the civil service, the judiciary and the police, he suggests, need to be strengthened and made more independent by introducing longer terms for those heading up public bodies and executive agencies and reducing the control elected politicians can exercise over them. References to an allegedly oversize Czech public sector and a nod towards Fareed Zakaria on the need for liberal constitutionalism to take precedence over democratic majorities where the two are in conflict hints that party politicians’ power might be cut back through some form of radical marketisation of public service delivery.

What is less clear, however, is how such reforms could be delivered in practice politically  and why efforts at the re-regulation of parties and political power might not misfire in the same way as earlier reforms. One answer may be that they could occur as a ‘Big Bang’ package – a concept influential in anti-corruption policy studies. Klíma himself draws a parallel with emergency reforms of banking systems in some countries at the height of the 2008-9 Recession.


Photo: Andrej Szymański CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

A Constitutional Convention in any literal sense would require a degree of inter-party consensus (or degree of social and political crisis) that seems unlikely to occur. However, Klíma’s appeal for a Czech Madisonian moment might best be taken more metaphorically as call for concerted and co-ordinated reform. In either scenario, however, it is a little unclear what political or social forces might deliver the deep and far-reaching change envisaged.

The burgeoning anticorruption parties that emerged in both 2010 and 2013 have, as Klíma ably shows, either been extremist or themselves the creatures of business interests. In an echo of Václav Havel the book also suggests civil society needs to be re-energised so it can hold to account parties and politicians to account – and that the impetus for anticorruption comes from the frustrated Czech middle classes – but it is hard to see quite what form such civic control might take – although the angry mass  protests in Slovakia and Bulgaria in 2012 and 2013-4 are mentioned, as is the Ukrainian Maidan Revolution.

Some of the proposed political reforms also seem shot through with potential unintended consequences. Any effort to roll back the frontiers of political corruption  through market reform of the public sector, for examole,  would need to face up to the fact that poorly regulated free markets lie at the origin of many of the Czech Republic’s problems.

And, as the experience of nearby Hungary shows, in the wrong hands entrenching top officials with long terms of office can be a tool for building a corrupt, partisan illiberal democracy, rather than enhancing the independence of state institutions.

Moreover, even if genuinely neutral technocratic experts and institutions can be put in place, this may raise furher questions democratic governance and party government. As Peter Mair famously noted, the increasing resort to expert decision-making and non-majoritarian institutions in Western European  democracies has tendedto further hollow out political parties rather than revitalising them.

In some ways perhaps in the already hollow Czech context this might not matter. In the book’s conclusion Klíma argues (realistically in my view) that the era of large membership-based parties, even on the modest scale that Czech politicians envisaged in 1990s, has passed. Expressing scepticism about quick fix reforms such as changes to the electoral system, Klíma suggests that although parties will be a central part of the future Czech democratic architecture –  they are mentioned in the Constitution –  in future they will, like it or not, be organisationally small, elite creations far removed from the socially rooted, internally democratic membership organisations envisaged in Czech party law.

Proposed reforms to make parties more centralised and introduce waiting times and screening for new members – measures some Czech parties have already taken up – seem to these recognise realities and to push parties  further in this direction – as do the suggestions of parties should be more open at elite level to allow the recruitment of wider range of candidates from non-political backgrounds (a practice already tried – or supposedly tried – by a range of Czech political groupings over the years).

Reasons to be cheerful?



Image: IZDV CC BY SA 3.0

Although ending on a call to arms, the underlying tone of Od totality k defektní demokracii is one of pessimism. This is perhaps to be expected in a book which for the first time systematically probes seamier, informal side of Czech party politics.

But to an extent its diagnosis and its pessimism may be overstated – or rather misdated. Much of its analysis describes a party system which has now effectively disintegrated, having largely melted down in the ‘earthquake elections’ of 2010 and 2013. Czech voters came to a similar conclusions to that presented the book about the corruption and clientelism of established parties. They then had little compunction –  and little difficulty – in ‘throwing the rascals out’ and turning to the new parties. The groundswell of public and media demand for more effective investigation of corruption cases also seems to have led the Civic Democrat-led coalition of 2010-13 to free the hands of police and prosecutors, paving the way for their destruction amid police raids and scandal.

‘Clientelistic democracy’ is, moreover, not a contradiction in terms. Clientelism has historically often proven a rather  effective way of organising parties and linking parties and voters and, easily co-existing with elements of ‘normal’ ideological or class-based competition..

Even in the Czech context there is the uncomfortable, but quite conceivable possibility – characteristically voiced by Václav  Klaus – thatklientelismus might even have been functional, even necessary, for Czech party democracy, co-ordinating and bringing predictability and stability fconfused mass of shell-like district organisations in the country’s two biggest parties. While eating away at the Czech party democracy in the long-term, the ‘regional godfathers’ may have propped it up in the short term.

Overall, this suggests that Czechia’s democracy is more flawed than ‘defective’ (in Wolfgang Merkel’s sense of the term) – with its biggest and most underlying flaw being the weakness of its civil society as a mechanism of horizontal accountability –  rather than the total subversion of democratic competition or collapse of the rule of law.

This is, of course, not to say that everything in the garden is rosy. If corrupt vested interests have privileged, covert access to political decision-makers and democratic choice appears afacade, representation and – correspondingly –  the legitimacy of the democratic system cannot only be damaged in the eyes of citizens.

Public goods from hospitals to motorways to armoured personnel carriers will also be more expensive and of poorer quality; and citizens will paying higher taxes if corrupt insiders public policy outcomes to their own advantage. Corruption is not a good thing.

But, the damage done so far is more to the  policy-making and the quality of democracy than regression of the system itself into a diminished sub-type of illiberal democracy. And as  recent exposes  of the role of the super-rich in US politics underline, the power of social elites and special interests, especially big business, to suborn elected representatives is hardly unknown in the oldest and most advanced democracies even if in Czechia the equivalent phenomena takes a particularly corrupt forms

Faced with widespread (talk of) political corruption disillusioned  citizens in Central Europe withdraw from an already hollowed out, low-participation system or turn to variety of unstable, elite-dominated protest parties, often themselves vehicles for business interests posing as defenders of the public interest. It remains an open question whether – and in what measure – these changes are a bane or boon.

klima 5

Photo: Jiří Vítek CC BY SA 4.0

In the Czech case much will depend on the political future of Andrej Babiš and his movement. These are, as Klíma astutely notes, ambiguous phenomena. Babiš is not quite the cartoon villain some have portrayed and his movement reflects a genuine demand for good governance. In government it has pushed reforms in the direction of strengthening of the independence state institutions and greater transparency.


On the other hand it presents us with the spectacle of a top-down, privately owned party, whose grassroots seems to consist of lovingly maintained astroturf and whose billionaire leader-proprietor personifies the fusion of economic, media and political power.

Periodically dismantling corruptly captured political machines and reining the influence of big money in politics might thus be as part of the ebb and flow of democratic development, rather than the first slip in  a longer slide into illiberalism or authoritarianism. But, especially in post-communist Central Europe, even where there is ‘only’ corruption, rather than illiberal parties seen in Hungary or Poland, there is nothing to guarantee that such a slide cannot happen.

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Survival of the Richest: How oligarchs block reform in Ukraine

By Blog Admin, on 30 April 2016


by Professor Andrew Wilson

This post originally appeared on the ECFR blog. Reproduced with kind permission of the Author.

The resignation of Ukrainian PM Arseniy Yatsenyuk and the elevation of Volodymyr Groisman demonstrates the failure of Kyiv’s reform process, and offers Europe an opportunity to push for deeper changes.

And while Ukraine suffers from many types of corruption, it is the penetration of its politics by the super-rich oligarchy that forms the main obstacle to reform.

Wealth is concentrated in few hands in Ukraine. Before the Euromaidan protests of 2013 the assets of Ukraine’s 50 richest individuals made up over 45 percent of GDP, almost five times as much as in the US. Politics in Ukraine is extraordinarily expensive, with campaign expenditures running at hundreds of millions of dollars. And oligarchical media ownership further strengthens the hold of the wealthy over Ukraine’s democracy.

The author highlights two key areas, the judiciary and Ukraine’s state-owned enterprises, where the nascent process of ‘de-oligarchisation’ has failed to take hold. Control over the courts means that there have been no high-profile leading figures from the Yanukovych era brought to trial. And Ukraine’s state-owned enterprises siphon off government funds to the pockets of oligarchs, providing further funds for them to control events in Kyiv.

The EU remains Ukraine’s only plausible ally and, as such, has the potential to wield a huge amount of influence over the reform process. Wilson highlights two main areas that European policy makers should focus on, both of which focus on decoupling the oligarchs from the political system, rather than attacking the oligarchy itself.

The first step should be to strengthen the pressure applied on the Ukrainian authorities from below, by local civil society. Engagement could take the form of encouraging the participation of Ukrainian NGOs in EU-Ukrainian government dialogue.

The EU and its member states should also pressure Ukraine’s leaders, who are perpetuating and in some cases directly benefiting from some of the worst practices of the Yanukovych regime. Abuses by oligarchs’ placemen in the state bureaucracy and others must be investigated.



Note: This article gives the views of the author(s), and not the position of the SSEES Research blog, nor of the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, nor of UCL.


The Post-Chernobyl Library

By Blog Admin, on 26 April 2016

On the 30th anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster, Uilleam Blacker of SSEES considers the cultural impact of the nuclear catastrophe in Ukraine through the work of one of the country’s most famous poets, Lina Kostenko, and one of its leading literary critics, Tamara Hundorova. The post first appeared on the British Library’s European Studies blog. 

See Words Without Borders for Uilleam’s translations of two of Kostenko’s poems.

The Chernobyl disaster wasn’t just an unprecedented environmental disaster: it was an event that caused profound political and cultural shifts on a global scale. The disaster foreshadowed and accelerated the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Cold War order, and the political reverberations of this were felt the world over. Yet it also forced a rethink of human beings’ relationship with the natural world, and compelling societies to face up to the fact that a nuclear apocalypse was no longer the stuff of science fiction, but a reality that was perilously close.

Kostenko Lina in ChornobylLina Kostenko near the Chornobyl  Nuclear Plant (From Encyclopedia of Ukraine)

For all of these reasons, the name Chernobyl – or to use more accurately its Ukrainian form Chornobyl – is a worldwide symbol of the disastrous climax of Western modernity. The Chornobyl Zone continues to function as a phantom, warning humanity of the dangers inherent in blind technological advancement, with endless images or drone films of the ghost town of Prypiat affording internet users the vicarious thrill of wandering a post-apocalyptic landscape. Western horror movies and video games take the Zone as their setting. Yet the real Chornobyl, the real Zone, with its real abandoned villages and its real locals – those displaced and those who stubbornly return – is less often the subject of Western reflection.

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US Election Awash in Virtual Realities

By Blog Admin, on 25 April 2016

by Professor Andrew Wilson

A decade ago, I wrote a book describing the ‘virtual politics’ of Eastern Europe. Many common patterns could be detected in all the post-communists states, but the paradigm was set by Russia, where the Kremlin had managed to create a world of puppets and fakes. Politics was not institutional, but theatrical, and its key principal was narrative control. The Kremlin determines a script, in Russian the dramaturgiia , that all the key players must follow, and whose carefully-staged ‘achievements’ are the basis of Putin’s super-ratings. In Russia, so-called ‘political technology’ has developed ever-broader forms since 2005. Peter Pomerantsev has even argued that the system requires ever-higher doses of drama; both the domestic Russian system and Russia’s tendency towards conflict with its neighbours is based on narrative escalation dominance, not on the conventional threat of military escalation.

Picture credit: Yale University Press

The West has different problems. The key parts of the political system are not fake; although there are some practices that Russians might recognise, like astroturfing  (running fake grassroots campaigns, and disguising the real sponsors of political messaging). Russians would also recognise the increasing abuse in US elections of what they would call ‘administrative resources’ – the resurrection of practices that were more common before the landmark Supreme Court judgements of the 1960s, particularly the abuse of redistricting powers by state legislatures and efforts to reduce the registration of minority voters.

But Russia’s would-be democracy has always been infected by ‘political technology’. In the West, the quality of democracy is under threat from technological and social change. The traditional institutions and formats of politics of the modern era, that predominated until roughly the 1980s, like political parties, broadsheet press and national TV news, are being disrupted by post-modern technologies. Moreover, new paradigms of social identity and new forms of social protest are replacing the agit-prop and door-knocking of party or trade union members with passive-aggressive activism or slacktivism. Virtuality, in the Western sense, is not an entirely fake democratic process, but the cumulative disruptive effect of technological and social changes that are now the tail wagging the democratic dog.


Nevertheless, the extraordinary 2016 US election has taken things a step further. But the election process has become more ‘virtual’ in several different ways. Many commentators have described the eruption of Donald Trump into the election as the victory of virtuality over reality, or of the takeover of reality by reality TV. According to Matt Taibi in Rolling Stone, for example, ‘the presidential election campaign is really just a badly acted, billion-dollar TV show whose production costs ludicrously include the political disenfranchisement of its audience. Trump is making a mockery of the show’, but his critics have ‘all got it backward. The presidency is serious. The presidential electoral process, however, is a sick joke, in which everyone loses except the people behind the rope line’. Politicians have been gradually turning into actors for some time, so why not a real ‘celebrity’ pretending to be a politician? Read the rest of this entry »

Too complicated to be trusted? Brexit, Europeanisation and Complexity

By Blog Admin, on 21 April 2016

By Filipa Figueira

As the Brexit debate rages throughout the UK, British people are clamoring for “facts” to help them decide. Yet neutral facts on the EU referendum seem hard to come by. “All I hear is opinions, but I want facts” scream, tweet and facebook the masses. So why are they not being given those?

Image Brexit FRINGE

The answer is that, when it comes to what will happen after the EU referendum, there are no facts …only forecasts. No-one can predict the future, and therefore no-one can tell what the economic growth rate of the UK will be if it leaves the EU, how many jobs (if any) will be lost, or what will happen to your grocery bill.

Economists will gladly provide you with estimates, but those are, well, estimates. Any minor change in the economic model used can produce a significantly different result, so it is no wonder that radically different numbers are being branded about, depending on the economist’s side of the campaign.

One of the key arguments of pro-Brexit advocates is precisely the difficulty that the average person has in understanding the EU. “Brussels” is seen as a mysterious labyrinth of hidden complexity, which cannot be understood – and therefore, cannot be trusted – by most Brits.

If may be of little comfort for them to hear that the EU labyrinth is hard to understand even for the EU officers who run it and for the EU scholars who study it. The EU is a moving target, a constantly changing animal, an entity forever evolving through what is known as the process of “Europeanisation”.

Europeanisation is any transformation that occurs because of the EU. This includes countries adapting their institutions to better deal with the EU, or to attract more EU funding. It also includes people feeling more European when they cooperate with other European countries – a process to which the UK appears staunchly impervious. And yes, it may include an increase in the scope of policymaking at EU level (reductions in that scope do happen as well, and can be called “de-Europeanisation”).

This is a constant process, and one which is by nature difficult to measure and define. The vast academic literature on Europeanisation struggles with this task, and usually ends up focusing on the more …academic question of defining what they mean by “Europeanisation”. Such a question can be endlessly debated, leaving academics with little time to actually research and clarify Europeanisation itself.

Could the Remain side argue that the undeniable complexity of Europeanisation is a point in its favor? Probably not. The leavers have it on this one. The question becomes, then, whether the added complexity is a worthwhile trade-off for the benefits of EU membership.

The public will not get facts on this – only those pesky forecasts – so they will need to use their brains. Why are all other European countries happy to put themselves through the

ambivalence and immeasurability of the EU labyrinth? Why is the debate about how many jobs will be lost after a Brexit, rather than about how many jobs will be gained?

An assessment based on common sense, rather than “facts”, shows where the trade-off lays. Europeanisation brings with it complexity and a loss of sovereignty on some policy areas. But on the other hand, it offers significantly better economic conditions and geopolitical clout, and spares the British economy from an (impossible to estimate) “uncertainty shock”.

As with any trade-off in life, the solution lies in finding the right balance. Clearly Brits do not wish to give away all their sovereignty, but neither do they wish to ruin their economy or face geopolitical isolation. So here is how things stand.

Image Brexit FRINGE 2

The current trade-off which the EU is offering involves a small loss in sovereignty (Britain retains control over all its key policies and all but a tiny percentage of its finances) in exchange for significant economic gains (being part of, and a key decision-maker within, the Single Market) and geopolitical benefits (being part of the continent’s decision-making, while remaining the United States’ most valued ally cum Trojan horse).

Will continuing Europeanisation disrupt this balance? That seems unlikely. A clear gap has emerged at EU level. On one side are the countries which are members of the Euro currency, and willing to accept deeper integration to guarantee its financial survival. On the other side are those, including the UK, which have decided to stay outside the Eurozone, and are clearly staying out of that process.

The only true result which David Cameron got out of his Brussels “renegotiation” was a guarantee that the UK could stay out of, and be unaffected by, that process (in fact that agreement was being discussed anyway, and would have been achieved with or without a “renegotiation” – but let us leave the Prime Minister’s theatrics out of this important discussion).

Europeanisation is, therefore, clearly moving towards a two-speed rhythm. Fast and bumpy for Eurozone members; slow and comfortable for more independent-minded countries such as the UK.

The trade-off on offer is a positive one for Britain, and about to get even better.

Whatever the result of the EU referendum, academics will carry on forever defining Europeanisation. Let us hope that Britain will still be a part of it.

Note: This article gives the views of the author(s), and not the position of the SSEES Research blog, nor of the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, nor of UCL



UCL SSEES: Director’s Position on EU Referendum

By Blog Admin, on 12 April 2016

UCL SSEES: Director’s Position on EU Referendum

Prof Jan Kubik, Director of UCL SSEES offers his personal opinion on Brexit

Personal opinion on Brexit

The debate about whether Britain should leave or remain in the European Union is heating up. When June comes, it will be up to individuals to cast their votes according to their own conscience. Nevertheless, in the meantime, it makes sense to assess the balance of advantages and disadvantages that any eventual outcome would bring and to take a position accordingly. I believe that it is better for Britain to remain and I am committed to making the case for Britain’s continued membership of the EU.

It is hard for me to see a net advantage of Brexit for an institution like SSEES. As has been made clear by several studies, summarized by Universities for Europe, Brexit would deal a tremendous blow to the British university sector and its remarkable intellectual prowess, its institutional dominance, and its strong financial performance. The first two of these would diminish as a result of disruption to deep and extensive networks of academic cooperation; the last would suffer from the resultant reduction of student mobility in Europe. SSEES would be hit particularly hard here: our School is proud to attract many students from Europe (around 37% of our current undergraduates come from other EU countries) and to have a strong network of European partners and collaborators. Such networks of cooperation, built up over the years, are costly to repair, once disrupted. Some partnerships may simply collapse. For these institutional reasons alone, I am compelled to take an anti-Brexit position.

But the most important arguments against Brexit are not financial or institutional, but historical and philosophical. The EU is key among those institutions that restored peace and prosperity to Western Europe after the Second World War and, in the decades since, it has provided an effective counter-balance to the ‘darker’ forces that have torn the continent apart so many times in the past. More recently, the EU played an important part in the political and social unification of Europe through the accession of the former communist states of Central and Eastern Europe. These states and societies have become beneficiaries of the common Europe, while also contributing increasingly to the EU’s success as a whole. Central and East Europeans have experienced only too well the damage wrought by European divisions in the past; as an expert on Central and Eastern Europe, I cannot be in favour of a reversal in the process of integration. Furthermore, I note and condemn the xenophobic rhetoric, directed largely against Central and East Europeans, that plays a part in much Brexit campaigning.

The European project, always evolving and never perfect, has recently come under tremendous strain. Europe faces many tests, among them the rise of right-wing populism that openly challenges the liberal-democratic culture that has been its hallmark. Brexit would signal the fact that that a key European power believes that the project is no longer viable and Eurosceptic and populist parties would be emboldened. As Director of an educational and research institution of humanities scholars and social scientists, I wish to warn against a political act whose economic outcomes would be uncertain, and whose longer and broader implications would certainly damage the delicate tissue of a hard-won European culture of coexistence.

I express here my personal opinion, developed as result of many days of thinking and discussions about our institution, UCL SSEES, about which I care deeply. I invite all colleagues to share their views on our blog and – even more importantly – to encourage our students to vote!


Note: This article gives the views of the author(s), and not the position of the SSEES Research blog, nor of the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, nor of UCL.



Dr Phil Cavendish at Grad London

By Blog Admin, on 29 March 2016

Dr Philip Cavendish spoke at the recent GRAD Eisenstein exhibition on the introduction of colour film to Soviet cinema.

The overarching title of the Gallery for Russian Art & Design’s (GRAD for short and based in Little Portland Street, London) series of public lectures this Spring is a play on the well-known slogan, ‘A Cinema, Understood by the Millions’. This became associated with Soviet cinema of the 1930s.

Courtesy of GRAD

Since the drawings of Sergei Eisenstein are the subject of the exhibition currently being curated at GRAD, it might be worth pointing out that the title also makes reference to the title of a newspaper article which Eisenstein published alongside Grigorii Aleksandrov in early 1929. Entitled ‘Eksperiment, poniatyi millionam’ (An Experiment Accessible to Millions), this was published in the film journal Sovetskii ekran to accompany the release of the film Staroe i novoe (The Old and the New) – also known as General’naia Linia, which they had directed together.

By suggesting that colour cinema was an ‘experiment understood by very few’, I don’t mean that Soviet audiences experienced conceptual confusion in relation to the phenomenon of colour. Instead, it is that the complexity of the scientific processes that underpinned the development of colour technology was generally grasped poorly. This is true of the direct consumers of film culture, the vast majority of film critics and correspondents who reported on that culture, the senior managers and employees of Soviet film studios and the bureaucrats that were responsible for the film industry as a whole.

This lack of comprehension had dire, if not tragic, consequences for some of those involved in colour-film production in the Soviet Union. It also produces significant challenges for the film historian who seeks to understand the phenomenon and its implications for the development of Soviet cinema and Soviet culture more broadly.


Courtesy of GRAD

The reasons for being interested in this subject are nevertheless various and compelling. Read the rest of this entry »

Roundtable Discussion on Jobbik and the Hungarian Far Right

By Blog Admin, on 18 March 2016


Logo for Jobbik. Source: Wikimedia commons

As a result of the electoral successes of Viktor Orban’s governing FIDESZ-KDNP coalition in 2010 and 2014, Hungarian politics has experienced a dramatic shift to the Right.  One beneficiary of this rightward shift is Jobbik, the Movement for a Better Hungary, which is now the leading opposition party with the support (according to opinion polls) of about one-fifth of the probable Hungarian electorate.

Formed in 2003 by university students in Budapest, Jobbik can be placed in a long tradition of right radical parties in Hungary that stretches back to the Hungary Justice and Life Party (MIÉP) that obtained parliamentary representation in the 1990s, to the interwar Party of Hungarian Life (Magyar Élet Pártja) and to the pre-First World War Catholic and Nationalist Parties such as the Catholic People’s Party, The Slovak People’s Party, as well as Europe’s first antisemitic party, the Országos Antiszemita Párt, founded in the 1880s. Jobbik has also been compared to Ferenc Szálasi’s ‘Arrow Cross Movement’, which briefly seized power in October 1944, even though the ideological differences between these two parties are substantial. Certainly, all of these parties, including Jobbik, can be seen as recurring examples of the enduring clash between populist/rural/antisemitic nationalists and an allegedly cosmopolitan/urban/liberal elite sometimes referred to as the népi-urbánus debate. This debate has been an important fault line in Hungarian politics since at least the middle of the nineteenth century.

On Wednesday, 24 February, five young academics from Britain, Hungary and Romania presented short papers at a well-attended roundtable organized by SSEES’s Centre for the Study of Central Europe, held at SSEES and chaired by myself (Thomas Lorman), which shed some light on the ideological roots and future prospects of Hungarian right radicalism in general and Jobbik in particular.

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FRINGE Centre blog series: I for Informality

By Blog Admin, on 9 February 2016

In our latest FRINGE  Centre blog, Eric Gordy of UCL SSEES and the FRINGE Centre considers informality in the Balkans – the focus of a major new project ‘Closing the Gap between Formal and Informal Institutions in the Balkans’, which recently received a 2.4 million euros from the Horizon 2020 programme, and which is being led by Eric from UCL SSEES. 

The research project on which we are now working came to life in a bar in Belgrade. I had arranged to meet my colleague in Serbia, Predrag Cvetičanin, to discuss an offer we had received to propose a work package for a Horizon 2020 proposal that was being assembled by our colleagues in economics. After looking at the general framework we decided that being the “social science on-the-side” team for a project in another discipline did not interest us, and that we would decline the offer. And probably because a few drinks had made us foolhardy, we decided that we would put together a proposal of our own (“What’s the success rate, 9%? Great!”).


Eric Gordy and Predrag Cvetičanin (photo: Eric Gordy).

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FRINGE Centre blog series: S for Statistics

By Blog Admin, on 22 January 2016

In the latest entry on the FRINGE Centre blog, Tomáš Cvrček of UCL SSEES considers statistics and their shortcomings. 

Breaking somewhat with the run of blog posts on big intellectual words, here is an entry about statistics, a mundane yawn of a word that starts with S. Where does the letter “S” come in the word “FRINGE”? It does not, although it could perhaps be appended at the end, making it plural. There are many ways in which things can stand on the fringe and one of them is the frontier of measurability. In line with the other themes in the acronym – such as invisibility, elusiveness and grey zones – the letter S can then stand for things that are somewhat in the statistical shadow, out of the gaze of the data collector.

tomas stats


To open with a confession, I think that data, numbers and statistics are a wonderful thing. They can tell us a great deal about lots of things that people are doing. When used properly, they can help one distinguish what is random and what is systematic. At the same time, as primary sources on various social phenomena, data have their limitations but that does not make them useless – rather, the limitations themselves are interesting.

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