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Eastern Europe: how to be a pessoptimist

Sean L Hanley15 December 2019

Demonstration in Prague

Photo: Martin2035 [CC BY 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Three decades after the fall of communism, Eastern Europe’s democratic development is seen in increasingly gloomy terms. However, we may need to find a more pragmatic, middle way in assessing the region, argues Seán Hanley.

The region termed Central Europe or Central and Eastern Europe – the body of small and medium-sized states between the former USSR and the established democracies of Western Europe – was once seen as the great success story of post-communist democratisation:  rapid and peaceful political transition in 1989-90; a quick return to economic growth; flawed but functional liberal democracy; relatively rapid integration into the EU; political elites who seemed, whether out of conviction or pragmatism, willing and able to imitate West European political, economic and ideological models – although these were (and are) diverse, ranging from Nordic style welfare capitalism to British-style deregulation and neo-liberalism.

Since mid-2000s, however, the intellectual climate  among both commentators and political scientists the agenda has shifted from one of understanding consolidation, integration and consolidation or remedying the flaws of stable, but weakly performing post-communist democracy to one of deep gloom.

Now, compared to early hopes of the liberal project, the narrative has become a pessimistic one. Of democratic decline or even backsliding toward authoritarianism. The rejection by voters and elites in Central and Eastern Europe of Western European models – and the EU status quo – as too socially and economically political for their traditions and societies. And of constitutional liberalism as constraining the democratic will of the people, or holding back the emergence of a capable modernising state.  Economic catch-up with Western Europe, especially in terms of the living standards of poorer, older, less educated, seems a chimera.

Populist critics now decry the locking in of Central and Eastern Europe as, once again, an exploited peripheral Europe (including Mediterranean democracies of Southern Europe and the Balkans) – analogous, but on a much bigger scale to the “left behind” marginalised regions within Western European countries, which have fuelled populist electoral insurgencies.

Given ineffective and cumbersome procedures for enforcing the rule-of-law – in what was supposed to a club of liberal-democratic nations – the EU, as R. Daniel Kelemen has suggested, is becoming a patchwork of  regimes encompassing democracies, semi-democracies and downright authoritarian states, hamstrung by North-South and East-West splits.

What is especially jarring is that some of the supposed frontrunners democratisation in the region – Hungary and Poland – are now the vanguard of “democratic backsliding”, conservative counter-revolution and experiments in liberal governance. Some prominent governance indices, such as Freedom House’s ‘Freedom In the World’, now classify Hungary as having slipped below out of the zone of fully liberal democratic ‘Free’ societies. Poland is rapidly heading the same way.

Worse still, some of the treasured mechanisms of building democracy such as civil society development and grassroots activism have turned out work in ways quite opposite to that  envisaged in 1990s. In Hungary and Poland, the electoral breakthroughs of the Fidesz and Law and Justice (PiS) parties were prefigured years before through the development of networks of conservative civil organisations and right-wing civic initiative at grassroots level.

Moreover, the main vehicles for illiberalism have not been ‘red-brown’ alliances of ex-communists and fringe nationalists, but parties and politicians with often impeccable roots in the anti-communist opposition, accepted by West European centre-right as mainstream conservative parties and political allies.

That said, there are many varieties of populism and democratic decline, ranging from the conservative electoral revolutions of Hungary and Poland, to the longstanding weak, but oddly stable corrupt democracies of Bulgaria and Romania, to the fragmented and feverish political landscapes of  Slovakia and Czechia – and the strange “technocratic populism” of Czechia’s billionaire prime minister Andrej Babiš ,who still unsure if he wants to be the Czech Macron or the Czech Trump.

George Orwell’s dictum that “All revolutions are failures, but they are not the same failure” is, unsurprisingly, often quoted these days in relation to East Europe. We could also paraphrase Tolstoy and say that all unhappy democracies are unhappy in their own way. Or we might remember the historians Joseph Rothchild and Nancy  M. Wingfield’s characterisation of the region – made originally after the decline and fall of communism in late 1980s – about Eastern Europe’s “return to diversity”. (more…)

Could Brexit lead to Frexit – or Czexit?

yjmsgi310 May 2016

By Dr Sean Hanley – Senior Lecturer in Comparative Central and East European Politics

This post reproduced with author’s permission

 

A powerful coalition of forces – ranging from the driest of conservatives to Greens and the radical left and taking in big business,  trade unions, churches and universities – has come together to underline the negative economic, social and political consequences of Brexit.

The UK leaving the EU, it is argued, will not only do lasting damage the country’s economic prospects and political influence, but could have wider repercussions and might even  cause the Union to start unravelling.

This is not simply a matter of absorbing a mighty economic shock, the complexities of negotiating the terms of Brexit, or the umpredictable effects of a sharply changed balance of forces within a downsized Union – the greater weight of Eurozone vis-a-via the non-Eurozone, for example – but the new political dynamics that might take hold.

Some have argued that, emboldened by the example of Brexit, eurosceptics across the EU, will start to push for the exit option, triggering a kind of ‘domino effect’.  Writing for France Inter. Bernard Guetta gloomily takes for granted that post-Brexit

… so many politicians and political parties would follow headlong down this route to get a slice of the action. The pressure for similar referendums would arise all over Europe. The defenders of the European ideal would find themselves on the defensive. In such a crisis it would be very difficult to rebuild the EU.

Available evidence does suggest potential for such a process.  Polling by Ipsos Mori shows high public demand for referendums on EU membership in with significant minorities France (41%), Sweden (39%) and Italy (48%). favouring withdrawal. Other polling even suggested that post-Brexit a majority of Swedes would support exiting the EU.

French, Dutch and Danish electorates do have experience of rejecting EU treaties in referendums – with voters in the Netherlands getting further practice in last month’s referendum on EU-Ukraine trade deal, whichsome see a dry run for a Nexit vote.

And demands for exit from the EU – or referendums about it – have been raised by expanding parties of the populist right pushing their way towards power: Geert Wilders’s Freedom Party in Holland advocates Nexit, while French Front National plans to organise a referendum on Frexit within six months of coming to power.

FN leader Marine Le Pen, who relishes the idea of becoming Madame Frexit, also recommends that every EU member should have one (although her offer to visit the UK and help out the Brexit campaign has been abruptly turned down).

The Danish People’s Party, once regarded as on the radical right, but now considered respectable and modernised enough to sit with the British Tories in the European Parliament, is pondering the idea of pushing for a referendum Dexit (Daxit?).

The logic of such exit options among richer states seems to similar the case now being made by UK Brexiteers: that wealthy West European states might be economically strong enough to make it – and perhaps even thrive – in (semi-) detached relationship with (what remains of) the EU, trading economic some losses for sovereignty and the freedom to follow immigration and welfare policies tailored to national requirements.

Domino effect

There even been reports that some Central and East European countries might be in the line to exit the Union they joined little over a decade ago. In February Czech Republic’s deputy minister for European Affairs, Tomáš Prouza, told reporters that Brexit could push Czexit onto the political agenda for his country’s eurosceptic conservatives and hardline  Communists.

And to some extent he has a point.  Czechia’s mercurial President Miloš Zeman, although himself a eurofederalist firmly in favour of EU membership, thinks Czech voters should have their say in a Czexit referendum. The Czech parliament recently voted to discuss a resolution on a Czexit referendum proposed by the populist Dawn grouping (but ran out of parliamentary time to do so).

Despite this Mr Prouza and his boss Czech prime minister Bohuslav Sobotka were probably laying on the Brexopocalypse rhetoric rather too thick. Having flirted with rejection of EU membership in the to accession in 2004, both the conservative Civic Democrats (ODS) and Communists had reconciled themselves to membership of Union, while hoping to steer it in a political direction more in tune with their visions of European integration and Czech statehood some time in the future.

And, while there is plenty of scepticism about the EU across the CEE region – polls, for example, show a majority of Czechs deeply sceptical about the future of the European project and opposed to the adopting the Euro – as in Western Europe ‘hard euroscepticism’ has been the province parties of the radical right and left. It is hard to find any out-and-out outers in the region.

For poorer, economically less robust newer member states EU membership was not only the best option for economic development, but a civilisational choice confirming their ‘Return to Europe’ and status as fully fledged democracies.

And while the Brexit referendum is a contest between two (semi-)plausible futures both of which draw high levels of public support – centring a debate over the trade-offs between economic growth and recovered sovereignty – CEE states have no credible economic options outside the Union.

For this reason, ‘hard’ Eurosceptics in the region have often been big on critique and vision but quiet on concrete proposals for getting their countries out of the Union. Instead their implicit hope seems to be that eurosceptic and anti-federalist coalitions prepared to roll back integration – either between governments or parties – will emerge, or that the European Union would suffer a sudden collapse, leaving CEE societies, as in 1918, to make a break for national independence amid the rubble.

 

(more…)

Something rotten in the state of Czechia?

yjmsgi33 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

klima3

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.

(more…)