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Does the eurozone crisis threaten liberal reforms in Eastern Europe?

By Blog Admin, on 15 November 2012

Uncertainties about the EU’s future are undermining mainstream parties throughout Europe. In Central and Castern Europe politicians can no longer sell the European model of liberal reforms when that model is itself in crisis, argues Sean Hanley

OccupyFrankfurt October 2011 EZB

Photo: Blogotron via Wikicommons

Although only three EU members in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE), Estonia, Slovakia and Slovenia, have adopted the Euro, the knock-on  effects of stagnation in the Eurozone has pushed governments across CEE towards unpopular austerity programmes, exacerbating social tensions and collapsing support for incumbent parties. The uncertainties about the EU’s future are also undermining mainstream parties in the region. Politicians can no longer sell liberal reforms as part of a successful, tried and tested european model as they once did, when that model is itself in crisis. For many this seems to point darkly towards a turning away from liberal politics in CEE and a growth in euroscepticism, populism and nationalism.

Recent developments in Hungary and Romania seem to illustrate this scenario. Since winning a landslide  election victory in 2010 Hungary’s main centre-right party Fidesz has pushed through a new constitution enshrining a conservative vision of national identity; entrenched its own appointees in government agencies; weakened the judiciary and introduced media laws and a new electoral system that seem to shift the rules of the political game permanently in the party’s favour.  EU criticism has been angrily rebuffed. Prime Minister Viktor Orbán claims the EU regards Hungary as a colony. The electoral success of Jobbik, a strident radical right grouping which combines hostility to Roma and Jews with an outlandish ‘neo-Turanist’ foreign policy of reorienting Hungary towards Asia, adds a sinister additional dimension.

In Romania a governing bloc centering on the Romanian Social Democrats (PSD) – the powerful de facto successor to the former ruling Communist Party – sought to strong-arm political opponents aside by simply ignoring legal procedures. The PSD and its allies only pulled back at the last minute under EU pressure from efforts to oust President Traian Băsescu. However, if, as polls predict, the PDSR-led alliance wins an emphatic victory in December’s parliamentary elections, the path may be open to a ‘constitutional revolution’ on Hungarian lines.

Did analysts who predicted after 1989 that Eastern Europe would degenerate into a Latin American zone of unstable semi-democracies get things right?

There are, in fact, good reasons to think that the future of CEE is not Hungary writ large, still less Latin America. While squeezed, many states in the region are fiscally in relatively good shape compared with debt-laden Hungary, not to mention the Eurozone’s Southern periphery. Hungary’s distinct institutions – a unicameral parliament and largely first-past-the-post electoral system – which are highly conducive to over-powerful single party government, are also unusual in the region. The restive conservative-nationalist Hungarian right – for whom the ‘negotiated revolution’ of 1989 was a shabby compromise to be overturned – also has few equivalents.  Nor is Romania necessarily a harbinger. The dominance of the PSD and the depth of its entrenchment in business and a corrupt state apparatus are extreme even for CEE.

But the two troubled polities do offer some lessons. The first is that in CEE the Eurozone crisis feeds into a complex of economic and political weaknesses, many domestic in origin and often rooted in the particular flaws of post-communist transitions. The nature of such weaknesses, however, varies markedly from country to country. Hungary and Slovenia are in many ways as politically and economically different as, say, Greece and Denmark. The second is that real threat to democracy in the region comes not from radical movements surging at the fringe, but from supposedly moderate mainstream politicians exploiting volatile, frustrated electorates – and Western European leaders’ distraction by the Eurocrisis – to make power grabs.

Despite the Jobbik phenomenon, there is little sign of a general rise in support for the radical right in Central and Eastern Europe. It is electorally moribund in Poland, the Czech Republic and even Romania and in decline elsewhere: in 2011 and 2012 long-established far right parties crashed out of parliament in elections in both Slovenia and Slovakia. Far-right (and occasionally far-left) success is only one part  of an eclectic mix of protest parties and anti-politics, which also extends to figures such as maverick social liberal Janusz Palikot in Poland, businessman turned centre-left independent Zoran Janković in Slovenia or libertarian blogger Richard Sulík in Slovakia. For many CEE voters, it seems, radical right parties are too long in the tooth and themselves too much part of the political establishment.

Euroscepticism – or perhaps Euro-scepticism – is bubbling to the surface in CEE. But it too seems set take a variety of guises: from familiar ideologies of radical left and – right and defensive nationalism to efforts to rethink the relationship of CEE to the EU core. Some market-oriented politicians like former Polish Finance Minister Leszek Balcerowicz have, for example, suggested the Eurozone might learn from how CEE managed its painful economic transformation of the 1990s.

Such a reversal of the pupil-teacher relationship would be a rich historical irony. But while there are some economic parallels, political parallels are few. Post-communist transformation was politically underpinned by a vision of modernization centering on western Europe with strong popular resonance. It was also insulated from protest by the, atomized, demobilized societies inherited from communism. The Eurozone has neither an obvious, shared model for its political future, nor a citizenry easily resigned – or consigned – to passivity.

Sean Hanley is Senior Lecturer in East European Politics at UCL-SSEES. His current research focuses on the emergence of new anti-establishment parties in Europe. This piece was first published by Policy Network.

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