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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…)

Could Brexit lead to Frexit – or Czexit?

BlogAdmin10 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?

BlogAdmin3 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…)

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…)

Storming the Winter Palace

BlogAdmin20 December 2013

Storming the Winter Palace, a SSEES languages and culture photo competition on the theme of Russian and East European London, led students and staff to contemplate cultural resonances, contemporary identities and stereotypes – and language-learning opportunities! In the final post of the year on the SSEES Research Blog, Sarah Young introduces a selection of entries. Commentaries are by the photographers, unless otherwise stated.

Harbry Ellerby’s photograph of the Hungarian stall in Camden reminds Eszter Tarsoly that every encounter with Eastern European food in London invites us to reflect on cultural exchange, language, and translation:

Harbry Ellerby: Hungarian stall in Camden

Harbry Ellerby: Hungarian stall in Camden

The photographer took this shot in front of the Hungarian stall in Camden Town. The food on sale here, instead of the grilled sausages more usual on Polish and other East European stands, is lángos, a deep-fried flat bread whose dough is similar to that of pizza. It is traditionally seasoned with garlic and tejföl, a wide-spread diary product in Eastern Europe known in various guises in the region (e.g. Romanian smântână and Czech smetana) and most similar perhaps to soured-cream. How much a simple, hearty food – particularly recommended after a long, hearty night – can teach us about translation! The man’s silouette in front of the stall and the hanging flower baskets are revealing: the image, while entirely authentic, could have been taken only on a somewhat manicured market. This video clip of the song ’Lángos, tejföl’ by the band Kaukázus shows how lángos is enjoyed in Hungary.

Seeing a street sign commemorating one of the many Eastern European revolutionaries who lived in London during the nineteenth century, Eszter Tarsoly‘s thoughts turn to today’s immigrants:

Eszter Tarsoly: Kossuth Street: a Cul-de Sac

Eszter Tarsoly: Kossuth Street: a Cul-de Sac

In a quiet, respectable, yet exhilarating corner of Greenwich stretches a modest Cul-de-Sac called Kossuth Street, named after Hungary’s larger-than-life revolutionary hero, one of the driving forces behind the 1848-49 Revolution and War of Independence. Lajos Kossuth, after the demise of that Revolution, resided briefly in Britain, and legend has it that he stunned English-speaking audiences with his knowledge of English acquired in prison, or rather, with the kind of English he had acquired (only from written texts) in prison. We do not know exactly what Kossuth’s English was like. But not far from Kossuth Street, just across the Thames near Limehouse basin, there are entire blocks of flats inhabited almost exclusively by Kossuth’s contemporary compatriots, sharing overcrowded accommodation, having little hope – in the absence of knowing good English or who knows what other skills – to move on. A dead end…?

The reality of contemporary immigration from Eastern Europe is the subject of the first of two photographs by Ger Duijzings:

Ger Duijzings: Automatic Door

Ger Duijzings: Automatic Door

This image was taken during a cold night in February 2012 at just after 3 in the morning, at a bank branch opposite Victoria Station. Together with my research student Cezar Macarie I was doing a night walk around the area. Underneath a row of ‘fast, easy, and convenient’ cashpoints, in the glass protected bank area, a dozen or so Poles and Romanians are sleeping rough. As it is outside of official opening hours, the automatic door is kept open by a traffic cone. A Pole smoking a cigarette in front told us that he had been working in London for seven years, the first five years on a contract, but the last two working on-and-off.

Ger Duijzings’ second entry confronts insular British views of Europe and the question of what ‘Eastern Europe’ means in this country:

Ger Duijzings: SKY for Eastern Europe

Ger Duijzings: SKY for Eastern Europe

A quick snap shot taken at the end of November 2007 at Luton Airport which shows how outdoor advertising at UK airports targets low-budget travellers from East Europe. I had just returned from one of my frequent commutes to so-called ‘Eastern’ Europe which for some natives in the British isles apparently starts just across the North Sea. I took the photo from the inside of a bus waiting to take me into Central London. A lone individual is about to put his luggage into the belly of a bus: it may have been an East European guest worker or student, perhaps. The cold and grey image has the impersonal and slightly gloomy quality of what Marc Augé would call a ‘non-place’.

(more…)

Premature donors? Development aid from Central and Eastern Europe ten years on

Sean LHanley28 November 2013

St. Philip's School Mathare: support and development of the school’s potential, KenyaWhen they joined the EU Central and East European states committed themselves to meet EU norms on international development aid. Small budgets, weak social support and limited political commitment have so far limited the impact of aid from CEE. However, it is too early to dismiss them as ‘premature donors’ argue Simon Lightfoot and Balazs Szent-Ivanyi.

Eastern Europe (CEE) states becoming donors of international development aid. It is also the year that three CEE states – the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Poland – joined the OECD’s Development Assistance Committee (DAC).  DAC membership is symbolically important of joining the ‘donor’s club’, but it also commits members to certain norms and practices in aid spending.  Both events make this an opportune time to review the progress CEE states have made towards meeting global aid norms.

Before we do that it is worth asking whether these countries are ready to become donors.  They classify as high income countries and are number are OECD members, so economically the answer must be yes, despite the impact of the financial crisis on some CEE states. But socially, the self perception of these societies is that they see themselves are poor and awareness of development issues is low, so the answer here is more complicated. And politically, aid is not seen as a salient issue, so there is little political capital gained by ‘selling aid’ to the public.

All of these factors affect the quantity, quality and allocation of the bilateral aid given by the CEE states. On becoming EU members, the CEE states were set quantitative targets for aid as a percentage of GDP. They committed to providing 0.15% by 2010 with the ultimate goal of 0.33% by 2015. No country met the 0.15% target and most are unlikely to meet the 0.33% target. However, given the economic problems of the Eurozone, a number of the other DAC members are similarly unlikely to meet their own targets for aid, with aid levels in Greece and Italy particularly badly hit.

But quantitative targets, while important, do not tell the whole story. (more…)

Turning left or melting down?

Sean LHanley23 October 2013

ANO2011 poster

Photo: Seán Hanley

 Seán Hanley previews the upcoming parliamentary elections in the Czech Republic where several newly formed parties, including the ANO2011 anti-corruption movement led by billionaire Andrej Babiš, have the potential to  shake up the country’s ailing political establishment.

Czech voters go to the polls in early parliamentary elections on 25-26 October. The elections follow the collapse, amid personal and political scandal, of the centre-right government of Petr Nečas in June, and the subsequent failure of President Zeman’s handpicked caretaker administration to win a vote of confidence.

At one level the election seems set to deliver a simple and straightforward verdict,: established opposition parties on the left will win, while governing right-wing parties will be heavily rejected by an electorate frustrated with austerity, stagnating living standards and sleaze. The main opposition Czech Social Democrats (ČSSD), most polls have suggested, will emerge as the clear winners with around 25-30 per cent of the vote, although the final polls published before voting have suggested that the party’s support is starting to slide. Meanwhile the hardline Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia (KSČM) is likely to pull in 15-20 per cent.

 The polls also point to a defeat of historic proportions for the right-wing parties of the former coalition. The Civic Democrats (ODS) (formerly led by Nečas) have proved surprisingly deft in trying to pull back from the brink: the party picked Miroslava Němcová, one of its few leaders untainted by corruption – and the first woman to head a major Czech party – as the party’s new public face and have run an inventive (and occasionally witty) Twitter-led election campaign.

But voters have remained largely unimpressed and the ODS seems set to see the 20 per cent support it received in the 2010 elections – then its worst ever performance – halved, relegating it to minor party status. Some polls put the ODS as low as 6.5 per cent, close to the 5 per cent threshold for parliamentary representation. The Chart below gives an indication of the latest polling.

ODS’s main centre-right rival TOP09 has, however, failed to capitalise on the troubles of its former coalition partner. Instead, it has waged a pedestrian election campaign and has no prospect of repeating its success in this year’s presidential election, when TOP09 leader Karel Schwarzenberg united a broad swathe of liberal and centre-right voters against the left-wing challenge of Miloš Zeman. Most polls suggest the party will struggle to match the 16 per cent it polled in 2010

Many voters have turned to new parties and extra-parliamentary groupings. Niche parties such as the Greens and Christian Democrats (KDU-ČSL), ‘personal parties’ such as the Civic Rights Party (SPOZ) of President Zeman or the Eurosceptic nationalist ‘Heads Up’ bloc endorsed by Václav Klaus have picked up sufficient support to put them within shouting distance of the five per cent hurdle.

So too has the populist Dawn of Direct Democracy movement of a businessman-turned-politician Tomio Okamura. Okamura, who first came to prominence as a judge on the Czech TV’s version of Dragon’s Den in 2010, has gained profile through his fierce attacks against the political class, socially populist rhetoric and baiting of the Roma minority using his unusual Czecho-Japanese background to deny accusations of racism

The most telling impact, however, has been made by ANO2011 the anti-corruption movement led by the Slovak-born billionaire Andrej Babiš, which has moved in a few weeks from relative obscurity to opinion ratings comfortably in excess of 10 per cent and is now regularly outpolling ODS and TOP09. (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…)

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