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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…)

Democracy up close: Experiencing Election Day in Poland

Lisa J Walters22 October 2019

By Carolin Heilig, (Current Early Stage Researcher of the FATIGUE project)

There are not many opportunities to experience democracy as directly as on election day. The opportunity to witness the 2019 parliamentary elections in Poland first-hand was an eye-opening experience. Thanks to the European Students’ Network, I was given the chance to join their international election observation mission to Poland.

As an independent, short-term election observer of the European Students’ Network (AEGEE), I experienced the whole election day in Krakow from the setting up of the polling station at 6:30am to the conclusion of the vote count at around 4:00am the next day. The AEGEE mission comprised 12 teams of international observers and local interpreters, covering 104 polling stations all over the country with a special focus on youth participation. The observation guidelines and standards we adopted have been developed by OSCE/ODHIR and the mission included meetings with stakeholders before election day [see here the official AEGEE press release ].

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Political Cynicism: The Case of Poland

yjmsawl4 October 2019

Dr Przemyslaw Sadura is a lecturer in the Institute of Sociology, University of Warsaw, and a visiting scholar at UCL SSEES. 

Slawomir Sierakowski is a founder of the Krytyka Polityczna movement and Senior Fellow at the German Council on Foreign Relations.

Following surprising increases in Polish voter turn-out during the 2019 European Parliamentary elections, we conducted field research on the attitudes and voting behaviors of the rural and semi-rural voters in Poland. Upon analyzing existing data, we formulated a questionnaire and conducted our own survey, following which we carried out a series of focus groups. The research looked at the existing and potential electorates of all major parties in order to develop a complete picture of political attitudes across the country. Their findings reveal that Polish voters remain rational actors with a good grasp of politics — at least as far as they think it concerns them — but are still vulnerable to partisan manipulation.

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Soft Power: Cats, Branding and the Ukrainian Far-Right

Lisa J Walters20 June 2019

Author: Michael Cole (@NotTheMikeCole), Early Stage Researcher for the UCL SSEES-led FATIGUE project

“There are three secrets to successfully interviewing gangsters,” declared the keynote speaker. “First, convince them your work is irrelevant. You’re an academic, that’s usually not too hard”. “Second”, he continued, “is alcohol. If you can hold your drink, you’ll usually win respect and get them to talk”. And the third trick: “Have a cute dog”. I was attending my first major political science conference since starting a PhD. Three days packed with panel discussions, roundtables, keynotes and fried breakfasts to really get my teeth into. As a relative newcomer to the field I was more than keen to soak up any drops of wisdom that those who’ve been in the game for a while had to offer. But something about his advice didn’t quite sit right with me.

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

Lisa J Walters23 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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Pot Calls the Kettle Black: Russian Report Describes the Spread of ‘Modern Technological Populism’

Lisa J Walters16 June 2017

Prof Andrew Wilson, Professor of Ukrainian Studies

When it comes to political dirty tricks, you can rely on the Russians to know how to call things by their right name.  Russians also have the habit of using terminology to describe the wider world that is reflexively useful for conceptualising Russia itself. A recent Report by a new Russian think-tank on ‘Modern Technological Populism’ has therefore caused quite a stir; both because Russia has been accused of not-so-covert support for populists like Donald Trump and Marine LePen, and because the Report is the first product of an institution directly linked to the Kremlin.

The think-tank in question is the ‘Expert Institute of Social Research’ (which in Russian has the acronym EISI), founded in the autumn of 2016 and launched in March 2017. The EISI is attached to the Presidential Administration and is presumed to reflect the thinking of the new Kremlin propaganda chief, former Prime Minister Sergei Kirienko and his ‘Strategy 2030’.

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Survival of the Richest: How oligarchs block reform in Ukraine

yjmsgi330 April 2016

 

by Professor Andrew Wilson

This post originally appeared on the ECFR blog. Reproduced with kind permission of the Author.

The resignation of Ukrainian PM Arseniy Yatsenyuk and the elevation of Volodymyr Groisman demonstrates the failure of Kyiv’s reform process, and offers Europe an opportunity to push for deeper changes.

And while Ukraine suffers from many types of corruption, it is the penetration of its politics by the super-rich oligarchy that forms the main obstacle to reform.

Wealth is concentrated in few hands in Ukraine. Before the Euromaidan protests of 2013 the assets of Ukraine’s 50 richest individuals made up over 45 percent of GDP, almost five times as much as in the US. Politics in Ukraine is extraordinarily expensive, with campaign expenditures running at hundreds of millions of dollars. And oligarchical media ownership further strengthens the hold of the wealthy over Ukraine’s democracy.

The author highlights two key areas, the judiciary and Ukraine’s state-owned enterprises, where the nascent process of ‘de-oligarchisation’ has failed to take hold. Control over the courts means that there have been no high-profile leading figures from the Yanukovych era brought to trial. And Ukraine’s state-owned enterprises siphon off government funds to the pockets of oligarchs, providing further funds for them to control events in Kyiv.

The EU remains Ukraine’s only plausible ally and, as such, has the potential to wield a huge amount of influence over the reform process. Wilson highlights two main areas that European policy makers should focus on, both of which focus on decoupling the oligarchs from the political system, rather than attacking the oligarchy itself.

The first step should be to strengthen the pressure applied on the Ukrainian authorities from below, by local civil society. Engagement could take the form of encouraging the participation of Ukrainian NGOs in EU-Ukrainian government dialogue.

The EU and its member states should also pressure Ukraine’s leaders, who are perpetuating and in some cases directly benefiting from some of the worst practices of the Yanukovych regime. Abuses by oligarchs’ placemen in the state bureaucracy and others must be investigated.

 

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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.

 

What will the Euro elections tell us about Eastern Europe?

Sean L Hanley11 May 2014

Plakat do Parlamentu Europejskiego 2014 Platforma Obywatelska

Photo: Lukasz2 via Wikicommons

Seán Hanley looks ahead to the upcoming European elections and assesses what they may tell us about the enduring differences between voters and parties in Western and Eastern Europe.

The elections to the European Parliament which take place across the EU’s 28 member states between 22 and 25 May are widely seen a series of national contests, which voters use to vent their frustration and give incumbent and established parties a good kicking. Newspaper leader writers and think-tankers got this story and have been working overtime to tell us about a rising tide of populism driven by a range of non-standard protest parties.

The conventional wisdom is that the ‘populist threat’ is all eurosceptic (and usually of a right-wing persuasion) although in some cases the ‘eurosceptic surge’ is clearly a matter of whipping together  familiar narrative than careful analysis.

But, as a simultaneous EU-wide poll using similar (PR-based) electoral systems, the EP elections also provide a rough and ready yardstick of Europe-wide political trends, ably tracked by the LSE-based Pollwatch 2014 and others.

And, for those interested in comparison and convergence of the two halves of a once divided continent, they a window into the political differences and similarities between the ‘old’ pre-2004 of Western and Southern Europe and the newer members from Central and Eastern Europe (now including Croatia which joined in 2013). (more…)