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East European liberals’ accommodation of ethnic nationalism has left the region’s democratic institutions vulnerable

By Sean L Hanley, on 18 March 2019

Photo: Akron/ Wikipedia Commons

East Central Europe’s democratic deterioration is as much  about the limitations of mainstream liberal forces as the rise of illiberal populists argue James Dawson and Sean Hanley.

Less than a decade ago the newer EU member states of East Central Europe (ECE) were considered the great success story of post-communist democratisation. This success was held up by scholars as a textbook illustration of how the EU, through the attractiveness of its political and economic model, and the toughness of accession conditions, could make a decisive difference by empowering pro-European liberals in the region’s shakier democracies to push their countries firmly on track to liberal democracy (and EU membership).

While poorer and more corrupt than the EU’s West European core, ECE was assumed to be a region safe for democracy with good long-term prospects for economic and political catch-up. Today this narrative of democratic progress is dead, replaced by one of democratic backsliding – and even sliding into authoritarianism – under the auspices of populist and nationalist politicians.

What has been especially disconcerting is that it has been the early frontrunners of democratization – Hungary and Poland – where such democratic backsliding has gone farthest and fastest: after winning decisive election victories (Fidesz in Hungary in 2010, Law and Justice (PiS) in Poland in 2015) conservative-nationalist governing parties have moved rapidly to dismantle liberal checks and balances, capturing or neutralising constitutional courts, state agencies, public (and in Hungary private) media and NGOs.

More strikingly still, Fidesz and PiS were not radical outsiders emerging from the fringes, but large right-wing parties once considered part of a pro-Western centre-right mainstream, whose representatives still sit with German Christian Democrats and British Conservatives in the European Parliament. Read the rest of this entry »

PLAYING WITH FIRE: The 2018 March of Independence in Warsaw as a ritual of national identity building.

By , on 23 January 2019

By Marta Kotwas (PhD Student, UCL SSEES) and Jan Kubik  (Professor of Slavonic and East European Studies, UCL SSEES)

On 11 November 2018 Poland was to celebrate the 100th anniversary of its independence. The holiday attracted a lot of attention, both inside and outside the country, not only because it was a commemoration of a major milestone in the nation’s history, but also because in previous years, particularly in 2017, it was dominated by the massive March of Independence organized by a coalition of far right groups. In some years, particularly during the PO’s (Platforma Obywatelska – Civic Platform) term in office, aggressive football hooligans, often expressing radical nationalism, vandalised the streets and attacked their opponents or journalists.

The question many were asking in 2018 was how the day was going to turn out, bearing in mind the significance of the centenary. Would it be a joyful celebration of national pride dominated by stately parades and leisurely outings in a festively decorated city? Or – again – a day to be remembered for threatening columns of young ultranationalists parading in unison, occasionally under neo-fascist banners, and propounding a menacing, narrow vision of Polishness?

We have just published an article in which we describe and analyse the history of Polish Independence Day, particularly since the fall of communism. The holiday, established in 1937, was banned by the Nazis and Communists and reinstated in 1989. In the post-1989 period it has come to be regarded as the most important day in the national ceremonial calendar. While following the gradual change in the event’s organization, décor, performative style, and ideology, we have become intrigued by what we have eventually conceptualized as the “symbolic hijacking” of the day by several extreme right-wing organizations.

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Why Romania’s protests have failed to bring about real change

By , on 20 September 2018

Dr Daniel Brett, Teaching Fellow in Social and Political Science, UCL SSEES

(This blog was originally posted on LSE’s Europe Blog on 19 September 2018.) 

Romania has experienced large anti-government protests on multiple occasions in the last few years, most recently in August this year. Yet as Daniel Brett explains, the achievements of these protests have been modest and short-lived, with the country’s ruling Social Democratic Party still maintaining power. He highlights that while the protesters and opposition parties may be united in their opposition to corruption, they have radically different views on social and economic issues, hampering their ability to change the direction of Romanian politics.

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Liberals against nationalism in Eastern Europe? It would have been a nice idea

By Sean L Hanley, on 25 July 2018

Protesters in Sofia standing on statue of a lion wave EU flag

Photo: Tourbillon [CC BY-SA 3.0 ]

Some commentators say East Central Europe’s liberals made the fatal mistake of cutting themselves off from traditional nationalism. Seán Hanley and James Dawson disagree.

Ivan Krastev  recently argued that East Central Europe’s liberals had made the error of taking an anti-nationalist stance from some point in the late 1990s. This, argued Krastev, occurred when the region’s liberals drew the lesson from the wars in the former Yugoslavia that all nationalism leads inevitably to bloodshed and violence.

By following the German example of avoiding public displays of flag-waving and treating nationalism as a creed that ‘dare not speak its name’, he claims, these liberals unwittingly forced moderate nationalists into the ‘illiberal camp’, opening the door for the illiberal backsliding that blights the region today.

This would be a compelling story – if it bore any resemblance to the actual behaviour of East Central European liberals in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

But it doesn’t. Anti-nationalism hasn’t been tried and failed in East Central Europe, it has never been tried.

In the 1990s, much as today, the most significant barrier to the realisation of an inclusive, pluralistic vision of liberal democracy was the taken-for-granted idea that the national state is the property of and instrument for titular national majorities. Both the EU and their liberal partners in Central and Eastern Europe knew this, yet both opted to accommodate ethnic nationalism at the time rather than oppose it. Read the rest of this entry »

Softly, Softly Belarus

By , on 11 June 2018

Andrew Wilson, Professor in Ukrainian Studies

This speech was delivered at the European Parliament, ‘Belarus: The Voice of Civil Society’, 5 June 2018

Belarus is changing. It is changing in ways that help European engagement. But, just to be clear, the one area where change is minimal is probably where we want to see it the most, in the political sphere. The label ‘Last Dictatorship in Europe’ may be out-of-date, but Belarus is not about to become a democracy any time soon.

No, what is driving change is sovereignty. First is the logic of sovereignty, which has been operative for some time; but often belated or delayed by political factors, namely Belarus’s formerly close relationship with Russia. Second is the threat to sovereignty since the Ukraine crisis in 2014; though partly this can be traced back to the war in Georgia in 2008.

President Lukashenka’s primary motives are regime survival and personal survival. He is pushing changes for instrumental reasons. Nevertheless, these changes are significant across four main areas: cultural policy, foreign policy, security policy and economic policy. Change, as I said at the top, has been least noticeable in domestic politics. However, in order to achieve Belarus’s goals in the other areas, there is some change even there.

All of this is done slowly. But the cumulative change is great. And arguably, this may take Belarus just as far away from Russia as Ukraine in the long-run.

Read the rest of this entry »

Poroshenko Seeks Reelection

By , on 8 June 2018

Andrew Wilson, Professor in Ukrainian Studies

Ukraine is already in election year. Both the president and parliament chosen in the tumultuous year of 2014 are due to be reelected in 2019. The presidential election comes first, in March; the parliamentary elections are expected to follow in October. As always, there are rumours of some politicians plotting a different time or a different order. But, currently, the depressing prospect for the 2019 elections overall is that all of the major players will return. So none has an incentive to campaign for early elections. (Former Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk has seen his party’s support collapse, but most of his team will jump on to other parties ae ‘life rafts’).

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Russia’s Global Legal Trajectories: International Law in Eurasia’s Past and Present

By , on 29 May 2018

Review by Julia Klimova, PhD candidate at UCL SSEES.

On 16 and 17 of February 2018, School of Slavonic and East European Studies (SSEES) at UCL hosted an international workshop on “Russia’s Global Legal Trajectories: International Law in Eurasia’s Past and Present”. Organized by Dr. Philippa Hetherington with generous support of the British Academy for Arts and Sciences and Pushkin House, the workshop was dedicated to the history of legal issues in Russia from the Russian Empire, Soviet Union and Russian Federation. The workshop lasted for two days and consisted of 6 panels and the total of 14 speakers. It united historians with legal scholars, which provided a rich basis for discussions of issues of legality at various points in Russian history.

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Beyond Borders: Sexuality and Cold War: On Łukasz Szulc’s book ‘Transnational Homosexuals in Communist Poland: Cross-Borders Flows in Gay and Lesbian Magazines’.

By , on 28 February 2018

Dr Ula Chowaniec (Impacts of Gender Discourse Series)

Transnational Homosexuals in Communist Poland: Cross-Borders Flaws in Gay and Lesbian Magazines. Pelgrave, London 2017.

The Myths, the Archives and the Impact of Community Makings

Łukasz Szulc’s Transnational Homosexuals in Communist Poland is not only about Poland and not only about Communism. It is a carefully executed study on the gay and lesbian movement in the so-called Eastern Bloc, it is a thought-provoking analysis of somehow mythical thinking of what is the “East,” and what kind of myths of the Central and Eastern Europe are particularly harmful, such as the myth of homogeneity; myth of the essence of the region; the teleological myth of good transition from communism into better kind of democracy and the right kind of ethics. Łukasz Szulc discussed all the just mentioned myths as based on one, more general myth of separation of the CEE countries from the West. Łukasz deconstructs those myths taking into account the stories of the emerging queer culture. This book is also an interesting debate on what “queer” means today and how it shapes our global identity and how those identities are used in geopolitical discourses, directly linked to the actual political decisions. The book actually starts with claiming that “we live in the age of ‘queer wars’”, where the issues of body politics, namely position on abortion, divorce and homosexuality divide the countries and people.

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