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

Sean LHanley18 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. (more…)

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

Sean LHanley25 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. (more…)

All tomorrow’s parties? The future (and past) of politics in Eastern Europe

Sean LHanley19 January 2015

By ŠJů (cs:ŠJů) (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Photo ŠJů (cs:ŠJů) (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0]

In this post we present a discussion between  Kevin Deegan-Krause, Tim Haughton, Stephen Whitefield and Jan Rovný on the current state of knowledge on political parties in Eastern Europe, what we still needs to learned and how researchers can get there.  The discussion had its origins in the Whither Eastern Europe conference held at the University of Florida in January 2014 and accompanies a special section on parties in the forthcoming issue of East European Politics and Societies.

Deegan-Krause: Let’s start with a simple question: Is there anything we know we can agree about?

Whitefield: I found it highly instructive to ponder the lessons from three intertwined perspectives. First, what do citizens want from parties? Second, what do parties have to offer to citizens? Third, how does the communication between parties and voters help deliver good democratic governance?

In terms of the citizen-party relationship, I believe that Robert Rohrschneider and I have already established that the underlying cleavage structure at the party-level differs between East and West: largely one-dimensional in the East but – importantly – no sign as yet of a shift in the axis of the dimension to resemble the West: in the East, party competition is still based on pro-West/Europe, pro-market, pro-democratic parties versus their opposite.

Rovný: Depending on country circumstances and legacies, you should find different combinations of the left-right versus gal-tan and different degrees of salience. The key is ethnicity (and state-building).

Whitefield: Of course, there is local variation. In some countries – historical national boundaries in Hungary for example or ethnic divisions in Ukraine or Latvia – specific issues are present that give national distinctiveness to party competition. But nonetheless, there exists powerful evidence of the importance of a Communist legacy on the nature of cleavages in the region as a whole and even of the freezing of the party systems there.

Deegan-Krause: To the extent we do see programmatic patterns (or other patterns), where do they come from? Do you see them anchored in the experiences of the region and if so, which ones?

Rovný: One of the most interesting debates has been the one on structure versus volatility of politics in eastern Europe. This debate has by now found a set of generally accepted conclusions. First, the literature on party systems and voting behaviour clearly and continuously finds increased levels of organizational volatility — parties get born, merged and dissolved more frequently than in the west — as well as increased levels of voting volatility — voters switch between parties at a higher rate than in the west, while fewer people turn out to vote.

At the same time, the literature on ideological structure continuously concludes that parties in the region offer reasonably framed ideological choices, and voters select parties on the basis of their political preferences. These two conclusions are seemingly contradictory: organizational and electoral volatility contrasts ideological structure. I believe that we should aim at the theoretical reconciliation of these findings by accepting that structured stability and volatility can coexist.

Deegan-Krause: Let’s talk about stability first. Given the kinds of electoral results we see in the region, it is interesting that there is any talk about stability at all.

Whitefield: We agree with what Jan [Rovný] is saying. Work that I did with Geoff Evans in the 1990s and 2000s did indeed point to the importance (contra some expectations) of most of the usual demographic suspects. Social class, measured using the Goldthorpe-Eriksson class schema—which is really based on characteristics of occupations, particularly manual/non-manual and the supervised/supervisory distinctions—was surprisingly useful in the post-Communist context.

Given what might have happened to the nature of occupational structures, this class scheme appears both internally valid but it also has good predictive value to both attitudes and political behaviour, as much as in the West.

As in the West, it doesn’t work as well in all countries—the cleavage structure and what parties offer helps explain variance—but it works. Age and education also work in wholly expected ways. Gender differentiates little. But where some of the most interesting results come are from the comparative study of the impact of religion and religiosity in the region.

At the extremes, Catholicism – and in Catholic countries church attendance – matter significantly for public political values and behaviour; in Orthodox countries, religion appears to matter little. I am intrigued to know whether this is a dog that continues not to bark in Russia and Ukraine. (more…)

Bulgaria’s new coalition: A rainbow without colours

Sean LHanley16 November 2014

Bulgaria’s newly formed coalition government seems to span left and right. However, in practice it offers a familiar mix of nationalism and neo-liberalism, argues James Dawson.

Bulgaria’s newly-formed coalition, comprised of the pro-European rightists of GERB and the Reformist Bloc, ex-President Parvanov’s ‘leftist’ ABV and the ultranationalist Patriotic Front might look like an unlikely alliance of ideologically incompatible parties – an apparent case of what the political scientist Thomas Carothers once termed ‘feckless pluralism’.

Certainly, this has been the angle taken by many commentators inside the country who puzzle at the ability of political actors routinely labelled ‘pro-European’, ‘right-wing’, ‘left-wing’ and ‘nationalist’ to work together. Yet such analyses rest on the flawed assumption that these labels reflect clearly articulated, meaningfully differentiated policy platforms helping citizens to identify with specific ideas.

In practice, this is a perfectly dull coalition consisting only of parties that are functionally both neo-liberal and nationalist, along with the now customary support of some shouting-at-the-TV-type xenophobes (though the role played by Ataka in the previous two governments will now be filled by the Patriotic Front).

If it is now difficult to discern one political platform from another, then it follows that many, probably most, votes are cast on the basis of non-programmatic appeals. Charismatic and clientelistic dynamics almost certainly explain why voter turnout remains quasi-respectable (over 50%) in a context of mass protest and disillusionment. Yet though ideas and policies may not decide the outcome of Bulgarian elections, they still matter: politicians must do something when given control of the state. The path of least resistance in Bulgaria has usually been to combine neo-liberalism and nationalism. It is unlikely that this government will buck the trend.

Neo-liberal ideas have never become a popular narrative across the country – most Bulgarians remain preoccupied with getting by and are not identifiable in terms of economic policy orientations. However, the arguments of the right have gradually assumed the position of a shared ‘common sense’ among influential urban demographics. In part, this can be explained by the preferences of the oligarchic networks that dominate media ownership.

However, the victory of neo-liberalism owes just as much to the actions of the Bulgarian Socialist Party, which has for over two decades used leftist rhetoric to mask its collusion in the enrichment of these same oligarchs, both through business-friendly policies (such as the famous 10% flat corporation tax) and old-style corruption. (more…)

Ukraine: Why Russian perspectives should be heard

Sean LHanley14 November 2014

Throughout the Ukraine crisis there has been persistent criticism from the West that the Russian media have intentionally presented misleading information on the conflict.

However, Joanna Szostek argues while there are legitimate concerns about the reporting of organisations such as the Russian state-funded broadcaster RT, banning or excluding Russian perspectives from the Western media would be counter-productive.

On 31 October a conference took place at the University of Cambridge to discuss ‘Ukraine and the Global Information War’. The event brought journalists, activists and academics together to reflect on media coverage of the Ukrainian crisis, with the problem of propaganda a particular concern. Several speakers represented organisations that have been working to expose disinformation in the Russian media and counter the Russian narrative of events in Ukraine more generally.

Russia’s international propaganda machine is so powerful, insidious and dangerous, argued some of these speakers, that much tougher measures are needed to block its effects. Calls were voiced for RT, Russia’s state-funded broadcaster aimed at international audiences, to be outlawed. Other participants suggested that Western news outlets should be freed from the usual requirement to ‘report both sides’ on the basis that the Russian ‘side’ is largely derived from falsehoods, so repeating it merely serves the Kremlin’s aim of muddying the waters. One eminent historian complained that the BBC’s Ukraine coverage had been ‘particularly irritating’ with its rigid commitment to ‘on the one hand, on the other hand’ journalism.

Some of the untrue stories disseminated by Russian television during the conflict in Ukraine have certainly been outrageous and the activists who volunteer their time and energy debunking fabrications deserve respect and support. Incessant Russian talk of the ‘fascist coup’ in Kyiv must infuriate the millions who joined Euromaidan out of a genuine desire to make their country less corrupt and more democratic.

Nevertheless, to ban RT or exclude the ‘Russian perspective’ from news reports would be counterproductive: it would serve only to reinforce impressions of Western hostility and ‘double standards’ in the eyes of the Russian public. (more…)

Ukraine’s ambivalent future

Sean LHanley4 November 2014

Events in Ukraine have polarised opinion, but the country’s present and future are best understood as  permeated by ambivalence, argues Alena Ledeneva.

The situation in Ukraine might grasped best by a specialist on geopolitics, a scholar of the (il)legitimacy of power, an ethnographer of insurgencies, an analyst of media propaganda wars, a trauma therapist, or by a psychologist of phobias and love-hate relationships. I have none of these specialisms, but I share their intellectual challenge: the theme of ambivalence.

As ‘East’ and ‘West’ embark on another cycle of ideological confrontation and political standoff, there is little room left for marginal positions or ambivalent attitudes. As the outside world lashes out at Putin over the Crimea and East Ukraine, Russians turn wartime patriotic. Yet paradoxically, exactly because it is impossible to achieve a consensus – and because the black-and-white positions over the Crimea and east Ukraine split families, friendships, and international clubs – it is the understanding of grey areas and backgrounds that may help define the way forward for Ukraine.

One legacy shared by most survivors of oppressive political regimes is what George Orwell called ‘‘doublethink’’ – which Yury Levada and Alexander Zinoviev branded as being the key feature of Homo sovieticus. Under late socialism, when present-day elites in Russia and Ukraine were growing up, it was irrelevant whether people believed official ideological messages or not. Instead, the relation to officialdom became based on intricate strategies of simulated support and on ‘nonofficial’ practices.

Individual doublethink developed into collective double standards that implied the ability to hold contradictory views in private and in public and the capacity to switch between them smoothly, when applied to ‘us’ and ‘them,’ to ‘ordinary citizens’ and to the Party leaders, and to one’s personal circle and to society as a whole.

In its sociological sense, ambivalence, as defined by Robert Merton, refers to incompatible normative expectations of attitudes, beliefs, and behaviour. The incompatibility is assigned to a status and the social structures that generate the circumstances in which ambivalence is embedded. The core type of sociological ambivalence puts contradictory demands upon the occupants of a status in a particular social relation. Since these norms cannot be simultaneously expressed in behaviour, they come to be expressed in an oscillation of behaviours.

In the context of modernity, ambivalence is associated with fragmentation and failure of manageability. Zygmunt Bauman defined ambivalence as the possibility of assigning an object or an event to more than one category. Bauman views it as a language-specific disorder, with its main symptom being the acute discomfort we feel when we are unable to read the situation properly and to choose between alternative actions.

Those who have detailed knowledge of the geography and the economic history of Ukraine or have done exhaustive research on the conflicting accounts on the current situation end up developing symptoms of ambivalence (more…)

“This is clearly not just about Ukraine, but about Russia’s ambitions in the whole neighbourhood”

Sean LHanley20 October 2014

Wilson UCWIMFTW coverAndrew Wilson  discusses his new book Ukraine Crisis: What it Means for The West with SSEES Research Blog.

SRB: You made a trip to Ukraine when writing this book. Could you tell us about your experiences there?

AW: When I was there, it struck me as a good idea that there was a book in all this. The previous time I was in Ukraine was in November last year, just before the protests started. But by February, it was also pretty clear that things were getting exciting and heading to some kind of denouement. So what do you do? You just go.

I arrived in the middle of an old fashioned revolution. I remember a human chain collecting cobblestones. At the front you had young guys chucking them at the militia, but the human chain was made up of the entire citizenry of Kiev – well dressed women in high heels coming from the office, the grandmother at the front still holding her shopping in a blue plastic bag. It was like a nineteenth century revolution between the citizens and the evil rulers, a bit like Les Miserables.

The book went to press really quickly, but hopefully, I can put some pictures in the second edition.

SRB: You refer to the Orange Revolution as a precedent to the Ukraine crisis. To what extent do you see this crisis is a continuation of the 2004 Orange Revolution?

AW: Well, the protesters clearly had that in mind. Initially they were copying the tactics of the Orange Revolution and it started in the same way – a peaceful, carnival-like protest. But people were also thinking of how to do it better. It was clear very early on during the Orange Revolution in 2004 that the regime wasn’t capable of using violence, whereas this time the regime did use violence–but did so very early and not sufficiently to put an end to things. So had a very early set of calculations with how to deal with a very different regime.

Ultimately the tragedy is that immediately after the uprising there was a sense of optimism that Ukraine was doing better this time but it never got the chance to show that because people were still learning lessons from the disappointments that followed the Orange Revolution.

SRB: Do you think in the immediate future that the Russia’s hegemony will dictate the political paths of countries in Eastern Europe?

AW: We can see Russia trying to influence all its neighbours, not just Ukraine. The bigger picture is a pretty scary one. If it is true that the countries that reformed fairly successfully in the 1990s in Central Europe were able to do so only because Russia was not really able prevent them, whereas Russia is now so able to do so here –that’s a pretty depressing conclusion.

It’s not just Ukraine but other countries that might be unable to reform or undertake the EU-friendly policies that Brussels wants; Moldova is a big test case with the election coming up, Georgia is a very interesting case too, because it has already reformed but under Russian pressure is now backsliding a bit. We can also see the reintroduction of a more Russian political culture – back to corruption, patronage, political prosecutions. The Baltic States are an important test case too because they’re in EU and NATO, but will that protect them from Russian pressure?

What’s more, this is clearly not just about Ukraine but about Russia’s ambitions in the whole  neighbourhood. Long- term I think Russia is over extended, so it would be able make trouble everywhere, but it can probably make trouble in two countries at once. (more…)

Latvia’s elections: Can there be harmony without Harmony?

Sean LHanley8 October 2014

Latvia held parliamentary elections on 4 October. Licia Cianetti writes that while the elections saw Harmony – the centre-left party representing the country’s Russian-speaking minority – win the most seats, the results will most likely see the incumbent government led by the centre-right Unity party continue in power. The steady fall in turnout experienced in recent elections also suggests that despite backing the ruling parties, Latvian citizens are far from content with the status quo.

The parliamentary elections that took place in Latvia on 4 October did not hold many surprises and are likely to return the incumbent governing coalition to power. The results, announced by the electoral commission soon after the closing of the polls, saw the Russophone-friendly, centre-left party Harmony once again in first place, with 23 per cent of the vote and 24 of the 100 seats in the Saeima (the Latvian parliament).

This is a bitter first place, though, as the party lost 7 seats compared to the last elections in 2011. The governing, centre-right party Unity came a close second with a little less than 22 per cent of the vote and 23 seats. This is an increase from 20 seats in the last elections, but also shows that the merger with the disbanded Reform Party (which in 2011 got second place with 22 seats) did not bring significant electoral returns.

The nationalist National Alliance (NA), also in the incumbent government, had their best result yet with almost 17 per cent of the vote and 17 seats, up from 14. The other governing party, the Union of Greens and Farmers (ZZS) also had a strong showing with 19.5 per cent of the vote and 21 MPs (up from 13 in the previous election). Alongside these four parties, which were all represented in the outgoing Saeima, two new parties entered parliament: No Sirds Latvijai (From the heart of Latvia, NSL) and Latvijas Reģionu Apvienība (Latvian Association of Regions, LRA). NSL gained just under 6.9 per cent of the vote and 7 parliamentary seats. LRA gained just under 6.7 per cent of the vote and 8 seats (the distribution of the votes by constituency accounts for the less-than-proportional seat distribution). The Table below shows the full results.

Table: Results of the 2014 Latvian parliamentary election

Note: Vote shares have been rounded to one decimal place. There are 100 seats in the Latvian Parliament. For more information on the parties see: Harmony, Unity, Union of Greens and Farmers (ZZS), National Alliance (NA), From the Heart of Latvia (NSL), Latvian Association of Regions (LRA).Source: CVK

Six out of the 13 parties that contested the elections, therefore, entered parliament. Of those that remained out of the Saeima, the ethnic party Latvia’s Russian Union (LRU, formerly For Human Rights in a United Latvia) was the most successful with a little less than 1.6 per cent, but still far from the 5 per cent threshold. Another notable ‘loser’ of these elections was the (in)famous oligarch Ainārs Šlesers’s new formation Vienoti Latvijai (United for Latvia), which lined up a list of former ministers and prime ministers but garnered less than 1.2 per cent of the vote. Neither party was present in the outgoing parliament and neither was expected to make it into the new Saeima, according to pre-electoral polls. The results of the European Parliament elections in May (when LRU unexpectedly retained its MEP), however, indicated that surprises could not be completely ruled out. (more…)