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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…)

The Mauritian Miracle

Lisa JWalters29 January 2018

By Dr Elena Nikolova, Lecturer in Economics, UCL SSEES

Both Mauritius and my hometown of Varna, Bulgaria are famous for their sandy beaches. Mauritius, for its five-star resorts on the Indian Ocean. Varna, for its breath-taking Black Sea coast. But Mauritius attracts travellers looking for luxury, while Varna (no less beautiful, by the way) – those looking for cheap sun.[1]

Mauritius is slightly richer than Bulgaria, but not by much. Bulgaria’s GDP per capita (in PPP terms, 2010 constant USD) in 2017 was $7, 967.70, while the corresponding figure for Mauritius is $9,822.0 (World Bank). The Mauritian government has set itself the goal of turning Mauritius in an inclusive, high-income country (with GDP per capita above $14,000) by 2030. If communist-era statistics are to be believed, Bulgaria was actually richer than Mauritius until 1990 or so. However, in recent years the gap between the two countries has widened further (Figure 1).

As of 2017, Mauritius is ranked as number 25 in the Doing Business Database, which measures the ease of doing business in a country based on indicators such as how easy it is to get electricity or resolve insolvency (as a comparison, France’s ranking is 31, behind Mauritius). By comparison, Bulgaria’s ranking is 50. Mauritius is also less corrupt than Bulgaria. Transparency International ranks Mauritius as the 50th least corrupt country in the world, while Bulgaria occupies 75th place (this comparison is based on data from 2016). And, Mauritius is a much happier place than Bulgaria: Mauritius is ranked as the 64th happiest country in the world, while Bulgaria’s ranking is 105 (out of 155 countries, 2017 World Happiness Report).

Figure 1:

Source: World Bank and author’s calculations.

(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…)

Danube-on-Thames: The New East Enders

BlogAdmin30 May 2014

This year, 2-13 June, SSEES is running the second UCL Global Citizenship ‘Danube’ Summer School on Intercultural Interaction. This is one of the four summer schools that make up the first year of UCL’s Global Citizenship Programme. The Danube Summer School brings together nearly one hundred students from across the University to learn about the Danube and the people that live along its banks. Coordinated by Tim Beasley-Murray and Eszter Tarsoly, the Summer School draws on the expertise of a wide range of SSEES academic staff, language teachers, and PhD students.

Below is a text from the Danube Summer School’s blog that explains the rationale for the Danube-on-Thames project, one of the Summer School’s outputs.

danube-on-thames1

Historically, the region through which the Danube flows has been a region of extraordinary cultural, ethnic and linguistic diversity. The realm of Empires (the Ottoman and Habsburg) that were multi-, rather than mono- ethnic, this was a region that did not care much for neat borders that separated one group of people from another. Here, you used to be able to find Serbian villages dotted in what was otherwise Slovak countryside, German- and Yiddish-speaking towns wedged between Romanian and Hungarian villages, pockets of Turks and other Muslims, Christians of all denominations (Orthodox, Catholic and varieties of Protestants) living across the region, and everywhere settlements of Germans (the so-called Danube Swabians or Saxons) as well those Danubian cosmopolitans, Jews, both Sephardim and Ashkenazim, and different groups of Roma.

A good, even clichéd image, of this cultural and ethnic plurality, as drawn, for example, by the Austrian writer, Joseph Roth, could be found in the classic Danubian café with its hubbub and chatter in many languages, its newspapers on sticks in German, Hungarian and Romanian, its Romany band playing music that draww on a complex fusion of musical traditions, its Jewish doctor playing chess with a Christian lawyer.

Today, much of this diversity has gone. The collapse of the multi-ethnic empires and the endeavour to create single-nation states, particularly following the First World War, started to tidy up the region and sorted people into national boxes. This process was continued in a much more violent way with the murder of most of the Danube’s Jews and a significant part of its Romany communities in the horrors of the Second World War. After the Second World War, this violence continued with the expulsion of the bulk of Germans from ‘non-German’ national territory – and also, to an extent, the removal of Hungarians from the more-spread out territories that they had previously occupied.

The raising of the Iron Curtain along the banks of the Danube, between Communist (Czecho)Slovakia and Hungary and capitalist Austria and between Communist Romania and non-aligned Yugoslavia, dealt another serious blow to the Danube as a site of intercultural flow. Most recently, the ‘ethnic cleansing’ that accompanied the Balkan Wars of the 1990s was a further step in the homogenization of the Danubian region.

The result is that the Danubian interculturality that this Summer School seeks to explore is not necessarily best explored on the banks of the Danube itself. Where then to look for it? (more…)

What will the Euro elections tell us about Eastern Europe?

Sean LHanley11 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…)

What drives the rise of Europe’s new anti-establishment parties?

Sean LHanley2 September 2013

A new breed of protest party is being propolled to success in Central and Eastern Europe by a mix of economic hardship, rising corruption and ossified party establishments find Seán Hanley and Allan Sikk.

The spectacular breakthrough of Pepe Grillo’s Five Star Movement in Italy in February underlined the potential for a new type of anti-establishment politics in Europe – loosely organised, tech savvy and fierce in its demands to change the way politics is carried class, but lacking the anti-capitalism or racism that would make them easily pigeon-holeable as traditional outsider parties of far-left or far-right.

 But for observers of Central and Eastern Europe (CEE), the dramatic eruption of new parties led by charismatic anti-politicians promising to fight corruption, renew politics and empower citizens is nothing new. Indeed, over the last decade a succession of such parties – led by a colourful array of ‘non-politicians’ ranging from aristocrats to central bankers, journalists and businessmen – have broken into parliaments in the region.

  Some have achieved spectacular overnight success in elections on a scale easily comparable to Grillo’s and (unlike Grillo) have often marched straight into government. Some examples include Simeon II National Movement (NDSV) in Bulgaria in 2001, New Era in Latvia in 2002 and Res Publica (Estonia 2003) and, more recently, the Czech Republic’s Public Affairs party (2010), the Palikot Movement (Poland 2011), Positive Slovenia (2011) and Ordinary People (Slovakia 2012).

 In a new paper we explore what these parties, which we term anti-establishment reform parties, have in common and what drives their success. (more…)

In step with the time? Bulgaria’s protest wave in transnational perspective

Sean LHanley16 July 2013

Protests in Sofia, Bulgaria - 16.06.2013

Photo: Bmw Spirit via Flikr CC-BY-2.0

Since 2011, few countries have been exempt from protests against traditional ways of doing politics. Guest contributor Ivalyo Iaydjiev examines how similar Bulgaria’s experience is to those countries that have recently seen mass protests and how it will cope.

The chances are, you are not aware that Bulgarians have spent over three weeks on the streets in what are the the biggest anti-government rallies since 1989. That’s hardly surprising, given that worldwide media attention has been fixated on the violent repression at Taksim square in Turkey, the mass protests in Brazil, or, most recently, anti-Morsi demonstrations in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. Yet as this hardly exhaustive list demonstrates, the sheer number of protest movements since 2011 makes it hard to believe that all is just coincidence.

One way to generalise meaningfully about this recent wave of protests is to follow Moises Naim’s idea that traditional power is actually ‘evaporating’, leaving many situations quasi-ungovernable.  Alternatively, we can look into what the World Economic Forum presciently named the key geopolitical risk of 2013, the ‘vulnerability of elites’. However, it is probably too early to draw large-scale conclusions about this period; instead, it is interesting to see how events in Eastern Europe resonate with other similar developments around the world. Indeed, Bulgaria is neither, as a famous graffiti put it, ‘in step with time’ as many protesters seem to think, but nor is it completely divorced from our times. (more…)

Eastern Europe: Parties and the mirage of technocracy

Sean LHanley16 May 2013

Non-party technocratic governments of experts have stepped in to fill a political gap in several European countries. But in East and Central Europe they are not always what they seem, writes Seán Hanley

Many commentators saw the governments of non-party technocrats formed in Greece and Italy in 2011 as an ill omen for development of party-based democracy in Europe. Established parties, it is suggested, are turning to technocratic caretaker administrations as a device to manage economic and political crisis, which allows them both to duck (or least share) responsibility for painful austerity measures. Such non-partisan governments of experts, it is argued, can only widen the yawning the legitimacy gap between governors and governed.

 Technocratically-imposed austerity backed by big established parties can further undermine party democracy by provoking anti-elite electoral backlashes:  the rise of new populist parties or breakthroughs by previously marginal radical groups. This in turn, makes coalition formation difficult and further rounds of caretaker government or awkward left-right co-operation more likely. The success of the Five Star Movement in Italy and its difficult political aftermath, which has finally resulted in an implausible Grand Coalition, seems to illustrate this scenario perfectly. Sometimes, caretaker technocrats themselves even add to the uncertainty, revolting against their erstwhile masters and founding their own new parties.

 How has the drift towards technocratic crisis management impacted Central and Eastern Europe?  The region is sometimes grouped with debt- and crisis-afflicted Southern Europe states as an economically weak periphery of flawed and potentially unstable democracies, where technocratic crisis governments are the order of the day.

And not without reason. In March this year the President of Bulgaria Rosen Plevneliev appointed a technocratic caretaker government to lead the country to early elections on 12 May following the resignation of prime minister Boyko Borisov in the face of street protests against poverty, high utility prices and corruption. Hungary had a year-long technocrat-led government in 2009-11, as did the Czech Republic in 2009-10 following the fall the centre-right minority government of Miroslav Topolánek. Meanwhile, Slovenia – one of three CEE states in the Eurozone – is set for a Southern European-style bailout following the downgrading of its bonds to junk status with undoubted domestic ramifications. (more…)