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SSEES Research Blog


A showcase of research from UCL's School of Slavonic and East European Studies staff and students


Czech presidential election: the oligarch or the general?

By Sean L Hanley, on 20 January 2023

Czechs again seem set to reject populism for moderate steady-as-you-go leadership, leaving bigger reform debates for another day, argues Seán Hanley.

Brno pro Ukrajinu 2022-03-01 (3762b) Petr Pavel

Petr Pavel [Photo: Martin Strachoň, CC BY-SA 4.0]

On 13-14 January Czech voters went to the polls in record numbers to choose a new head of state to replace two-term president Miloš Zeman.   Although, as expected, none of the eight candidates gained enough support to win outright,  two clear frontrunners emerged to contest a second, run-off round on 27-28 January: former prime minister and billionaire businessman Andrej Babiš, who leads the  ANO movement – Czechia’s biggest political party – and independent retired general Petr Pavel, the ex-head of the Czech Army who had served  a high-ranking  NATO official in Brussels. Pavel narrowly topped the poll with 35.4 percent of the vote with Babiš narrowly trailing on 34.99 percent.

At first glance, the result looks puzzling. Voters in one of post-communist Central Europe’s most socially liberal democracies have opted for an unlikely-looking choice between an oligarch and a general.  Conventional party-political candidates and issues were largely absent from the campaign which centred on personalities, particularly, on the divisive figure of Babiš.  Opponents see the billionaire ex-PM, who was acquitted by a court of EU subsidy fraud in the long-running Storks Nest case mid-way through the campaign, as a corrupt populist with strong authoritarian leanings.

But the contest also reveals underlying continuities in Czech politics. Originally elected to parliament on an anti-corruption platform and promises to ‘run the state like a firm’, Babiš has long since shifted towards a loose social populism promising big public spending, generous pensions, and hikes in public sector salaries, which has seen him swallow up the electorate of Czechia’s once strong parties of the traditional left.

This was amply demonstrated in the first-round. Babiš promised to ‘help people’ and fend off belt tightening or taxes rises the current centre-right government may resort to cope with Czechia’s strained post-Covid public finances. Analysis of first round-voting patterns confirm that Babiš’s vote was strongest in poorer regions and smaller localities with lower  standards of living and educational attainment, and higher levels of unemployment and consumer debt. Read the rest of this entry »

New Russian Exodus: Russians Protest With Their Feet Against Putin’s War in Ukraine

By Lisa J Walters, on 21 October 2022

Written by Svetlana Ruseishvili[1], Oswaldo Truzzi[2] and scholars of the Sérgio Vieira de Mello Academic Chair for Refugees at the Federal University of São Carlos, Brazil. Svetlana Ruseishvili will be a Visiting Scholar at UCL SSEES for Term 2, 22-23. 

Putin’s attack on Ukraine resulted in casualties, destruction, and large-scale migration. In Ukraine, the main demographic consequences of the war were the massive loss of life and the vast number of refugees and internally displaced persons. Since the war began, thirteen million people have been displaced from Ukraine, both internally and abroad. According to UNHCR estimates, 7.4 million Ukrainian refugees have been registered in Europe. About 3 million people left or were taken to the Russian Federation.

The scale of emigration from Russia itself became unprecedented. Although emigration from Russia for political and economic reasons occurred before the war, it was Putin’s invasion of Ukraine that triggered a massive flee to nearby visa-free countries such as Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Georgia, Turkey, Armenia, Estonia, and Latvia. According to rough estimates, between 500,000 and 1 million people left Russia after the invasion of Ukraine. Exact statistics are unavailable, as emigrants have left and continue to flee in an emergency, without de-registering in Russia, arriving in visa-free countries. This is a massive new exodus from Russia.

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Researching Poland from Abroad: Challenges of Doing a PhD in Area Studies: Insights from the Polish Studies Group Northern Workshop in Manchester

By Lisa J Walters, on 1 September 2022

Anna Stanisz-Lubowiecka and Carolin Heilig, current UCL SSEES PhD students

A PhD is a special but equally challenging period. For those in the midst of it connecting with others in a similar position can make you realise that your experiences are shared by others and for those just about to embark on the PhD journey, an exchange with more experienced PhD candidates can help to mitigate certain challenges from the get-go.

On 23–24 June 2022 during the Polish Studies Group Northern Workshop in Manchester we moderated a session dedicated to the needs of PhD students in Polish Studies. The aim of the session was to discuss challenges students have encountered at different stages of their PhD journey and share experience on how some of these challenges may be overcome. The discussion took place in a friendly and supportive atmosphere of a PhD student network and also invited PhD students at Manchester University researching other countries in the region. Students who attended our session were doing their PhDs at a number of British universities and represented different disciplines, but they had one thing in common: they were all doing research on some aspect of Poland. For many of us this was the first occasion to come together to discuss challenges of researching Poland from abroad. For this reason, we ended up focussing primarily on discussing the challenges themselves, rather than providing solutions.

Read the rest of this entry »

Student blog | Inaugural Lecture by Prof Richard Mole: Nationalism, Populism and Homophobia in Central and Eastern Europe

By barboraposluch, on 9 June 2022



Through his inaugural lecture entitled ‘Nationalism, Populism and Homophobia in Central and Eastern Europe’, Professor Richard Mole guided us through an insightful analysis on how LGBT identities have been politicised in the region and how they are intertwined with populism.

Following an address from the SSEES Director, Professor Diane P. Koenker, and from the Executive Dean of the Faculty of Social and Historical Sciences, Professor Sasha Roseneil, Richard began his lecture with a short research timeline and explanation of his research interests. In particular, Richard’s research activity centres around understanding how and why states treat their sexual minorities in specific ways.

His lecture begins through operationalising homophobia. Particularly, he highlights a mismatch between the degree of legal rights granted to LGBT groups in specific European countries and the societal support for legal equality for these groups. These differences are particularly noticeable in the case of Poland and Hungary, which, perhaps not so coincidentally, have strong populist parties in power.

The question thus arises: why do populist parties weaponise homophobia?

Richard begins to answer this question by first defining populism. Through the definition he uses, developed by Mudde and Rovira Kaltwasser, populism is generally seen as a thin ideology that divides the society into “corrupt elites” and “pure people”. He then explains how East European populism overlaps with nationalism, resulting in a promise by populist parties to restore traditional values.

As such, populist discourse in these cases tends to limit the definition of “pure people”; in Poland, for example, it restricts the term to “catholic, ethnically Polish heterosexuals”. This limitation permits the delegitimization of opposing views, making way for narratives such as the anti-LGBT one. This logic is illustrated by the anti-LGBT zones legislation in Poland.

Richard’s lecture then shifts focus towards explaining the implications of this anti-LGBT discourse: namely why politicians say they initiate such legislation and why they actually do so.

When seeking to justify such legislation, politicians usually adhere to a series of reasons why queer individuals are seen as a threat to the nation: they fail to contribute to biological reproduction, they fail to contribute to cultural reproduction, they fail to adhere to traditional stereotypes of gender roles and they deviate from religious norms. In Poland’s case particularly, LGBT individuals are also seen as disloyal, often turning for help towards the West and not domestically. This also plays well into the populist rhetoric that homosexuality is a Western import.

When assessing why politicians actually choose anti-LGBT legislation, Richard highlights politicians’ need for a scapegoat, turning the LGBT community into a distraction from other state issues, such as economic problems. Moreover, this discourse strengthens their support among the conservative electorate and helps to generally deligitimise liberal politics.

Richard then delves into the research that he conducted together with Dr Agnieszka Golec de Zavala on nationalism and homophobia. Namely, he explains the distinction they made between nationalism as “national in-group satisfaction” and “national collective narcissism”. Their research finds a direct relationship between the latter and homophobia, identifying that individuals scoring highly on collective narcissism are more likely to also display homophobic attitudes. This research ties in perfectly with Richard’s thesis on the connection between populism and homophobia.

The lecture concludes through circling back to the LGBT-free zones case and its political aftermath, with mentions on the international and LGBT community response to the situation. As the general populist discourse tried to reframe queerness as an ideology championed by the West, the Polish LGBT community itself began reclaiming national symbols. Richard finishes his lecture by emphasising the importance of LGBT activism given that the instrumentalisation of homophobia by populists is unlikely to disappear any time soon.

The event ended with a heartfelt reflection from Professor Michael Worton, who pondered the hardships spotlighted through Richard’s lecture in regards to nationalism and populism across the region.

Overall, Richard’s lecture was an eye opening synopsis on the socio-political climate the LGBT communities in Central and Eastern Europe face. His research proves to be a vital means to reach causality between the anti-LGBT phenomenon and populism, explaining the factors underpinning the persistence of LGBT oppression in the region.


A recording of the Lecture is available to watch on UCL SSEES YouTube Channel.


The Belovezh Accords – A Warning from the Dacha

By Lisa J Walters, on 7 April 2022

Author: Pippa Crawford, MA Russian Studies

On 8 December 1991, six men met in a hunting lodge in the ancient forest between Poland and Belarus. There they signed the Belovezh Accords, triggering the collapse of the Soviet Union. The signatories were the Presidents of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus, and their respective prime ministers, with the leaders of the other Soviet republics conspicuously excluded from the dialogue. Whether or not the Belovezh Accords were legal remains difficult to prove, as the original document was destroyed. There are persistent rumours that none of the leaders came to the dacha with a coherent plan for the future of the Union, and that whiskey and vodka were involved. One thing is certain – the events of 8 December sent shock waves across the Soviet region, the effects of which are still palpable today.

Viskuli Dacha

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Czech elections: despite the Pandora Papers Babiš will be hard to dislodge

By Sean L Hanley, on 5 October 2021

2021 was supposed to be the year that the Czech Republic’s billionaire populist Prime Minister, Andrej Babiš, finally came a cropper. Dogged by corruption allegations, fending off prosecution and under persistent fire from the EU conflicts-of-interests, the oligarch-turned-politician’s ham-fisted handling of the covid crisis caught up with him. Having bragged that early success controlling the pandemic made Czechs and Central Europeans ‘best in Covid’ – and trumpeted his own skills as a political crisis manager – by March this year Babiš was presiding over a country with the worst infection rates in the world, with his government’s record slated by experts and medical professionals.

But just days before parliamentary elections on October 8-9, and despite the bombshell Pandora Papers revelations about his use of offshore companies to buy property on the French Riviera, the populist billionaire seems to have every chance of hanging on  – and the outcome of the elections is uncertain. Read the rest of this entry »

Christian churches, social capital and the 2020 Belarusian uprising

By Lisa J Walters, on 9 August 2021

Author: Paula Borowska, PhD Candidate at UCL SSEES. Paula’s working thesis is ‘Religion and social capital: the case of Protestants in Belarus’

This August marks a year since the large-scale protests had swept through Belarus following the fraudulent presidential election. With several protesters dead and the number of political prisoners in hundreds, Belarus is undergoing one of the most dramatic periods since it proclaimed independence in 1990.

Source: belsat.eu

Despite the violence of the authorities, the persistence of the protests demonstrated something unanticipated. One can hardly say that civil society in Belarus is the ‘least developed in Europe’ (Lenzi, 2002) or ‘weak’ (Matchanka, 2014), while social capital is in ‘low stocks’. In fact, social networks, solidarity and trust of Belarusians have never been at these levels.

The brutal suppression of peaceful protest marches has also triggered reaction from various Christian churches in Belarus. This blog post explores how Christian churches engaged with the ongoing crisis. It views their participation as talaka, a form of voluntary assistance, historically, traditional to Belarusian rural communities. Considering the political turbulence and the state repressions, churches efficiently facilitated acts of solidarity within society.

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In Memoriam – Prof. Oleh Havrylyshyn

By tjmsrol, on 6 October 2020

Prof. Oleh Havrylyshyn died on the 20th of September 2020. In this piece, Elodie Douarin pays tribute to her friend and colleague, recounting her experience of working with him.

Oleh Havrylyshyn first came to SSEES in the fall in 2017. I had received in the summer an enthusiastic email from Yuemei Ji: she had had a long conversation with Oleh at a conference and they had both concluded that he needed to come and visit us in London. I could not agree more: Oleh’s expertise on the Economics of Transition was widely recognised, but he also had much broader interests covering Politics and History, thus making him a perfect match for our multi-disciplinary area study school! As we started discussing the organisation of a visit, many people came on board, and Jan Kubik, who at the time was SSEES director, was in particular very supportive. His early enthusiasm was instrumental to getting the visit finalised.

Fast forward to December 2017, and Oleh was finally here. He had come to London with his wife Natalia, and in the space of 4 days, he took part in 4 different events: speaking about his book on Ukraine with Andrew Wilson, discussing Ragusa and historiography with Wendy Bracewell, commenting on the book I had just published with Tomek Mickiewicz and finally discussing 25 years of transition in a public lecture for our PG and UG students. He was delighted by his visit: he tremendously enjoyed exchanging with Andrew, they mostly agreed in their analyses but Oleh really appreciated the intricacies of Andrew’s argumentation. The conversation around cheese and wine continued long after the event was meant to finish, with speakers and audience members exchanging anecdotes till late in the evening. The discussion with Wendy was warm and instructive. Again Oleh left enthused, he had received constructive criticism and had now new ideas to investigate further the success of mediaeval Ragusa. His presentation to our students was also a success. He had a very personal experience of transition, having worked both for the IMF and for the Ukrainian government, this gave him a lot of personal anecdotes and “small stories” to tell to liven the bigger stories of transition. Oleh’s talk ended with a standing ovation and a few audience members coming to him to express how privileged they felt to have met him, with one even asking Oleh for an autograph. Oleh was visibly touched by the recognition, if maybe a little puzzled too.

In all settings, Oleh was incredible: he was excited to exchange and argue his views and always did it clearly and precisely, with references to facts, data and sources. He was very knowledgeable and very good at structuring his arguments to maximise impact. But he would also recognise inconsistencies or areas in which he thought more work was needed, and he genuinely liked receiving constructive criticism, as an opportunity to improve and refine his work. There was not a trace of vanity or arrogance in him: he was engaging with specific academic arguments because he found them fascinating and his motivation to improve knowledge – nothing more, nothing less.

After this first visit, we stayed in touch. He had praised “Economics of Institutional Change”, and our informal discussions during his visit at SSEES had made it clear that we were very much in agreement in our views on transition. This wasn’t surprising, Oleh had been central to my education on the the subject (together with my numerous conversations with Tomek Mickiewicz and an earlier reading of Aslund’s book “How Capitalism was Built”). He continues to feature repeatedly in the reading lists for the courses I teach (Emerging Market Economies and Economic Development and Policies). Oleh had an engaging writing style, his papers and books were highly pedagogical, explicitly engaging with interpretations that differed from his own to clarify where the disagreements came from, always embedding his arguments in data, and often nuancing his conclusions to recognise areas where more research was needed. As we kept exchanging, the idea of co-editing a book together reviewing the evolution of “Comparative Economics” over the past 30 years emerged. I felt honoured that he found the idea appealing, and it took us only a couple of iterations to finalise our full book proposal: we had a truly common vision of what the book should be about. Three very detailed sets of reviews later, we had a contract signed for a Palgrave Handbook of Comparative Economics.

Working on the book was hard work, much more than I had anticipated. However, I would definitely do it all over again. We had an incredible set of contributors, who embraced our vision for the book and delivered on our expectations. And I really enjoyed working with Oleh. He was extremely reliable, never missing a deadline and always responding swiftly to queries, even the most mundane ones. We had frequent discussions, and made sure we both agreed on the feedback we sent to all our contributors. I benefited greatly from his experience, and he named me head of communication and technology, because of a slight comparative advantage in using some of the more modern tools (Oleh would smile reading this. He was often making fun of his difficulties with technology).

Oleh really impressed me with his stamina: we worked through the final versions of most of the chapters for the handbook while I was in lockdown in Italy and he was increasingly social distancing in Canada. Some collaborators were facing all sorts of difficulties in their diverse locations, as the pandemic enfolded. Our response was to increase the turnaround at which we were providing feedback: the handbook would just have to be a priority for a little while, as it was the only way we could support our contributors, to try and make the publishers deadlines, without adding pressures on others. But in his case, he was doing this after an intense period of work putting the finishing touches to another book…

“Present at the Transition” (CUP) is indeed the latest book written by Oleh. It is an engaging book reflecting on the experience of transition away from communism and towards market economies in Central and Eastern Europe and the Former Soviet Union, and it is such a perfect reflection of Oleh’s views and personality because the book does what Oleh did best, providing a detailed review of the academic literature and an astute discussion of key data, peppered with personal anecdotes which both illustrate and nuance the academic perspective. The book is both really accessible (and would make a great read for anyone interested in a detailed overview of transition from undergraduate students to early career researchers alike) and exhaustive, providing a formidable account of transition, from many perspectives. Indeed, the book presents an economic analysis of transition but also discusses historical legacies, political economy constraints, and external influences. The subtitle to the book reflects this approach well: “An Inside Look at the Role of History, Politics and Personalities in Post-Communist Countries”. It does bring together a lot of Oleh’s knowledge and expertise, providing a compelling overview. It just came out in May 2020 and incredibly, Oleh was able to finalise the proofs as we were between the first and the second drafts of most of the chapters for the handbook.

As I write today, we are also working through the proofs of the handbook, which should be released by the end of the year or early in 2021. However, Oleh will not be there to see this happen, as he left us on the 20th of September 2020, passing peacefully in the night. The news came as a complete shock to me, I had been in touch with him several times a week for the past 2 years, and pretty much every day since the beginning of 2020. He had always been warm and upbeat, often mentioning his plans for future research. He had also become a friend. In my last email to him, I had attached a picture of my newly redecorated working-corner at home, and he had informed me on the latest changes in his garden. He died just a few days after proof reading his handbook chapters: one last time delivering on time on the tasks he had committed to perform.

Oleh will be dearly missed, because he was such a knowledgeable academic who over decades had contributed to educating many, like me, to the intricacies of transition, because he enjoyed debating and honing his arguments, while always respecting and valuing the views of others and had thus earned the respect of those who agreed and those who disagreed with him, because he had a diverse experience and also wanted to embrace a diversity of points of view, making him a true advocate of inter-disciplinarity, because he was kind, generous and supportive to all, especially younger scholars. I will miss him dearly as a great colleague and a friend.

Oleh’s wife, Natalia, was always a fantastic support for Oleh. She attended some of his talks, always a supportive and loving presence at the back. She encouraged and supported his work, but also reminded him to take care of himself and stand back when needed. My thoughts are with her, as well as their children and grandchildren, in these difficult times.

The family invite friends and colleagues to submit their thoughts and reflections on Oleh’s legacy using this Google form.